Masters of Disaster

CNN’s earthquake coverage rises above the rest.

Since I posted last week’s column soliciting opinions on the TV news landscape for the New Year, a terrible event—the undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami in South Asia—has come along to remind us that TV news is there to do something more important than pit one talking head against another. In the quake coverage of the past few days, one cable news network has pulled ahead of the others in both the scope and quality of its reporting—CNN. The network that pioneered the concept of 24-hour cable news has had trouble competing with Fox News when it comes to personality journalism. (Just-released end-of-year ratings ranked The O’Reilly Factor as the single most-watched cable news program on TV.) But when it comes to journalistic chops, CNN provides disaster coverage that’s consistently informative, seldom tasteless, and almost never altogether stupid.

Even as I type, CNN is reporting live from Sri Lanka on medical relief efforts, while MSNBC is running a segment on a young American couple raising sextuplets—the kind of evergreen human-interest story you’d think might be held for a more appropriate day, when images of cute, healthy babies lined up in a row wouldn’t so grimly invoke news photos like the one on the cover of today’s New York Times, which showed the lined-up bodies of some of the more than 15,000 children so far estimated dead in the disaster. Meanwhile, Fox News is giving generous airtime to a spokesman at the “Crawford White House” indignantly denying that U.S. aid efforts have been “stingy,” as alleged yesterday by U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland. (The diplomat later retracted his words.) “The clear message in this disaster,” according to the White House rep, “is that Americans are committed to helping.” Good to know that, even when more than 50,000 people are presumed dead in one of the worst natural disasters in a century, it’s still all about us.

Perhaps the most disturbing symptom of Western journalistic myopia has been the baffling persistence of coverage involving the Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, who was injured while vacationing in Thailand with her photographer boyfriend. The first time I saw this story reported (versions of it ran repeatedly on MSNBC and Fox News this morning and afternoon), I had to check to make sure I wasn’t watching the E! network or some parody on Comedy Central, as shots of thatched huts floating in the wreckage gave way to images of Nemcova posing in a red bikini or lined up with other Sports Illustrated models on a runway, flashbulbs popping. Not to minimize Nemcova’s suffering—she clung to a palm tree for eight hours with a shattered pelvis after seeing her boyfriend washed away by the giant wave—but how does the producer who OK’d these glitzy segments sleep at night? Do the networks really think that Americans can identify with victims of a disaster only if they have blond hair, bee-stung lips and a toned midriff?

Nemcova’s statement from the hospital seemed to unconsciously invoke the American media’s constant slippage between news and entertainment programming: “There were so many people with horrible injuries, with blood everywhere. It was like a war movie.” The model’s spokesperson echoed those words, telling reporters that “the whole thing just seems horrific, like something out of a movie.” This kind of comparison is perhaps inevitable when those of us raised on disaster movies witness a real disaster—many people made similar analogies after watching the footage of Sept. 11. But it’s the job of the networks covering such events to remain ever mindful of the difference.