As the coverage chronicled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I couldn't help but wonder: Would I be in the last generation to know America as a superpower?
The recent history of news coverage of current events leads me to such speculation. News coverage, and its purpose, had changed dramatically. With it, my country.
When the attack on America occurred on 911, news outlets went wall-to-wall with coverage. Regular programming was preempted. Advertising was eliminated. Tons of newsprint carried the types of images once verboten by newspaper standards. America turned to CNN for breaking news, then to Fox News Channel when information slowed. There, unlimited and often pointless talk filled the void.
It was then that the news and information began to stream across the bottom of your TV set, and along with it, that thing known as the "terror alert" was unveiled.
In one catastrophic event, we saw the best and worst of television spot news coverage: The power of television to bring images into your living room to convey a story words alone could never tell. With it came awareness of the weakness of cable's 24-hour programming, which paraded has-beens and wannabes in front of the American public for scenarios filled with "what ifs" and "could it bes." Rumors and unsubstantiated facts made it on the air, to be confirmed or denied at a later time. Talking heads worked hard, but not hard enough. The heir to Cronkite's throne was nowhere to be found, yet desperately needed.
As cable news jockeyed for position, we witnessed television's commitment to public service: Hundreds of millions of dollars lost due to commercial-free coverage over the course of a few days. Plus, all that overtime, extra staff and equipment needed to cover the crisis in the uncharted territory of the 24-hour news format.
But what both cable and broadcast television revealed was the lack of experienced war reporters at work in the field and, with it, the uncertainty of what America needs to know. War dramatically changes the reporting landscape. Only a few time-worn veterans know how much. This is not the same thing as logistical difficulties in actually securing and transmitting the news.
Since then, major weather events around the globe have given rise to a new pecking order among journalists: Weather reporters are to my generation what war reporters were to my father's era. The coverage of the tsunami on the other side of the world forced a higher standard out of meteorologists; one that called for stronger warnings and continuous coverage, no matter the danger of the situation. The joke that weather is for the pretty and the empty headed may be officially put to bed: Weather reporting is now the domain of the alpha dogs.
What then, to make of Katrina and the coverage of her fury? Weather professionals did their jobs, warning days in advance of a major storm brewing. That governmental officials didn't pay attention is to their discredit, not the weather reporters'. Also, as in the Iraq war, news came at its coverage from a new angle-using blogs to give and get information.
Today, everyone with a cell phone, camcorder or blog spot can be a reporter. There's some good in that but mostly, there's a lot of bad. The good is that the public is participating in the process that is the cornerstone of our democracy. The bad is that standards and responsibilities in journalism aren't readily understood by the public at large. Increasingly, we now see those responsibilities aren't understood by professional reporters, either.
We weren't a nation of bloggers when 911 happened. And it's too soon to weigh the effectiveness of the coverage of Katrina's natural-disaster-turned-war-zone work. But some interesting developments are in play.
Despite Katrina's standing as the greatest natural disaster to ever hit America, the networks' coverage was business as usual. This time, it was cable stepping up to the plate, with 24-hour coverage that continued to unfold a developing story. Time for talk, previously the hallmark of cable news channels, was kept to a minimum as breaking news had been nearly constant.
Musings in the blogosphere pondered why the networks don't feel 24-hour coverage was necessary when it came to Katrina. Was it because the victims of Katrina represent the lowest socioeconomic strata in our society? Would 911 coverage been different if New Orleans rather than the New York financial district and the Pentagon had been targeted?
Instead of coverage, many news outlets took to raising funds for the victims. Of course, the victims need and deserve all help possible, but charitable fundraising isn't the job of news organizations. Was this the very moment after which news would never be the same? Why, when people were hungry for information, did the traditional news sources fail them by saying, "Write a check" instead?
Even more striking: Now with Katrina, cable news reporters had started asking questions of-and demanding answers from-politicians. The big surprise to this was the reaction that came from bloggers, who began to accuse the news media of suffering from a "loss of objectivity" in covering their stories-and, of course, poaching on the bloggers' territory.
Apparently, the fact that asking the tough questions is entirely the domain of the news media is so far out of the public's consciousness that even when the media succeeds in doing their job they are accused of failing! Perhaps the blame should be laid upon the period we call political correctness, which turned into an excuse to whitewash reality with softball questions. Leading the pack? The White House press corps. Breaking from the pack? Cable, of all places. At least, this time and with these questions. Wall-to-wall coverage of the larger problems of a global society is a boon to the citizenry-but is wall-to-wall coverage of a visually undramatic car chase on CNN?
In the news, I now see images coming from America that I never thought I'd see. It's not the America I thought I lived in. But I can't help but wonder if the images of Gulf Coast or Iraqi destruction are the aftermath of a tragedy, or the beginning of the fall of our civilization. Has our foundation grown so weak we've given up trying to hold it together? Apparently, it's easier to look the other way and let the hard questions go. We'll just assume someone with a checkbook will be there. Not to make it right; just pretty.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Spring 2006 (17:2),pp.6,16-17.