Tsunami Reveals News Gap

Susan J. Douglas

Satellite photos of coastlines eradicated, images of utterly bereft mothers who had lost their children, accounts of how people’s daily lives halfway around the globe had been destroyed — all these brought out the best and the worst of the U.S. media. They also dramatized what we can learn, see and feel when the news media break out of their U.S.-centric mode and actually pay more detailed attention to the rest of the world. According to the Tyndall Report, ABC, CBS and NBC alone devoted 157 minutes to the tsunami story during the week of December 27-31, three times the coverage other big stories got in 2004

The tsunami has been a powerful reminder of the blinders our news media impose on our global vision.

On the one hand, of course, news outlets are only now providing us glimpses of life in Sri Lanka, Thailand and India because of this massive natural catastrophe; otherwise, according to standard journalistic routines, why pay attention to them? The countries Americans heard about in 2003-04 were Iraq, for obvious reasons, Britain, Afghanistan and Palestine. Most others remained invisible. In fact, as we all saw, the networks had to rely on home video footage at first because they have no bureaus in the region. And, as a result, we nearly always see the people of these countries (especially the women) as helpless victims.

On the other hand, much of the coverage has been deeply heartfelt, has vaulted over American ethnocentrism, and has brought to our attention groups of people and ways of living that U.S. journalism hardly ever shows us. The story has been a powerful reminder of the blinders our news media — especially TV news, including CNN — impose on our global vision.

The coverage has been the equivalent of going through the secret wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia, to reveal a teeming world of work, love, family and loss we never get to see. Some have argued that the Western media would never show images of white mothers embracing dead children, or of stacks of dead Western tourists being bulldozed into mass graves. But many of these images have not been objectifying; on the contrary, they have driven home the commonality of the human condition, despite enormous differences in wealth and culture.

Sadly, we already know what will happen. The relief efforts will continue, the headlines will become smaller and the window we had on this area of the world will close again.

The disaster was also the latest dramatic demonstration of the compassion gap at the rotten core of Team Bush. Not only did Bush immediately make Scrooge look like Albert Schweitzer with his initial, shameful offering of $15 million for relief, he also showed himself to be completely out of touch with the instincts and self-conception of the American public. He fully expected the rest of the country to be as indifferent to and ignorant about the rest of the world as he is. As he remained silent and on vacation at his beloved ranch in Crawford, other horrified Americans began sending money to all kinds of relief organizations. His initial offering — the moral equivalent of offering a starving child a gum drop — was not only insulting to the international community, it was deeply embarrassing to Americans who see providing aid under such circumstances as central to, dare I say it, our moral values. 

The Guardian, unlike our own august news outlets, quickly reminded its readers that the U.S. government has spent $148 billion on the invasion of Iraq, and even when Bush the Grinch was forced to up the aid pledge to $350 million, that was the equivalent of one and a half day’s worth of spending in Iraq. 

Of course, mean-spirited isolationism and mass ignorance are Team Bush’s ultimate goals. This is the administration that has succeeded in cutting Pell Grants for lower-income college kids — they want people to be uneducated, credulous and uninformed. That’s how they get away with selling everything from WMD in Iraq to a fake crisis in Social Security. Geographic ignorance is absolutely crucial to their success.

But for how much longer will the news media help them out? Coverage of international news on the networks has declined precipitously since the mid-’80s, from nearly 3800 minutes in 1989 to just over 1800 minutes in 1996 at ABC (the leader) and from 3350 minutes to 1175 minutes at NBC. In 1988, ABC featured 1158 foreign bureau reports; by 1996, that was down to 577 reports. Meanwhile, publications like The Economist and the Financial Times are enjoying increased circulation among business elites who need and want to know about international affairs. 

As Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams pack their bags and head for the comforts of home, we can expect that their employers will put the lens caps back on the cameras, and turn our attention back to news you can use.” This, too, will be another sad outcome, another opportunity lost, in the wake of this history-reshaping disaster.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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