Before Katrina, network news had spent a lot of time bemoaning the lack of viewers, to which I would like to respond; maybe you shouldn't have been so stupid.
The return of The Daily Show on 6 September, after a weeklong break, was an unspeakably cathartic release. In the days following the breaching of the New Orleans levees and subsequent flooding, I had been trying to avoid the television, favoring a compulsive need to refresh the AP newswire on my computer every 15 seconds, instead. However, by Friday night, three days after the break, I needed to see footage of the flood that wasn't in a tiny blurred window on my monitor. I turned on CNN. And who's partially decayed mug should I see, but that of Larry King. And to make matters worse, he was talking to Celine Dion.
She bawled via satellite about the dying children and told Larry that she's giving a million of her own dollars to the Red Cross. For the first time ever, Celine Dion is on television and I'm not mocking her. Instead, I'm crying with her. I'm not even making fun of her for advertising her act of charity shamelessly on national TV...or even that tacky shirt she's wearing. Celine Dion is suddenly a compassionate voice of reason. But before I start checking for more evidence that the world is ending, Larry interrupts her to request that she sing a song. At this point my entire household, cats included, crowded around the television to see if Celine Dion would become my hero and hand Larry King his ass. But no, she wiped her tears away and sang like the consummate performer she is. It was a repugnant moment of television.
Kanye West, however, did not miss his opportunity. Eschewing the bland script scrolling in front of him, he launched into a tirade against the government and the media's treatment of race in crisis, closing with the already classic line, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." He called out the media for obvious racial bias in their coverage of the African American "looters" versus the Caucasian "finders" in the first days of flooding. He addressed the government and the media's reluctance to acknowledge that those hit hardest by the storm were poor people, a disproportionate number of whom were African Americans, itself evidence of institutional racism. With racism and classism flowing out of our government like water through the levees, it's hard to figure out where rote prejudice ends and indifference to the mortality of people of color begins.
Thankfully, it wasn't just celebrities on TV calling bullshit on FEMA and the Bush administration's initial portrayals of their efforts. A few actual newscasters came through, as well. Anderson Cooper bitch slapped senator Mary Landrieu on air saying, "For the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset." It was a relief to see a TV newsperson actually act like a journalist, but equally horrifying that it took something as awful as Hurricane Katrina to make it happen.
In the days after the 'break', local news in Los Angeles was frittered with images of kids dumping their piggy banks in Red Cross collection jars. The only pseudo-reportage I saw was a clumsy interview with a Naval captain who had been in New Orleans helping people for the past few days. The newscaster said to him something to the effect of, "So the people in New Orleans are getting help. We've been hearing that there's no help." He missed the fact that one boat a national relief effort does not make, and led me to conclude that I've taken craps with a higher capacity for reason.
After that report I gave up on TV news and returned to compulsively reading the AP newswire. Although the satisfaction of watching Anderson Cooper and Kanye West speak the truth was substantial, it didn't outweigh the sheer idiocy of the majority of what is broadcast. To be clear, I have watched 16 seasons of The Real World. I have a very high threshold for stupid television, but the good thing about The Real World is that it's not conveying information vital in times of crisis. It's okay to have low expectations for a reality show about drunk kids hooking up, but I'd like to hold TV news to a higher standard.
Before Katrina, network news had spent a lot of time bemoaning the lack of viewers, to which I would like to respond; maybe they shouldn't have been so stupid. Maybe if they ran fewer exposés about murdered rich or otherwsie attractive people, they could fit in more of the news stories that actually matter. Ever since Lacy Peterson went missing I've kept a digitally enhanced photo of myself for my family to give to the news stations in the event that I disappear. I suspect that there's a box of photos of missing people that aren't of attractive, wealthy-looking white people under the desk at every TV station that they never bother to air, let alone do a 60 Minutes segment for. And it goes almost without saying: the racial bias in the news is unacceptably rampant before, during, and after Kanye West's outburst.
While I'm making requests of TV news, I'd enjoy programs that don't try to lure me into watching exploitive reports with teasers like, "Could all of America be on the eve of destruction due to a virus/dirty bomb/Armageddon/escaped zoo monkey?" Since 9/11 I've been trying to come to terms with the fact that I could die any moment, so is it too much to ask that news programs restrain themselves and only cover real threats to my life, and do it gently? I'm already one report away from getting a Unabomber shack where my husband, cats, and I can live out our days as an inter-specific tribe of hunter-gatherers.
Finally this week The Daily Show with Jon Stewart came back on TV and said what I'd been thinking, but smarter and funnier than I could put it. Stewart talked me through the Celine Dion episode, making it a punch line rather than a reason to believe that Larry King is a reanimated corpse with the capability to suck my brains out through the television. He introduced the clip with Dion, adding, "It (appeared) that her heart might, in fact, not be able to go on," and followed up Larry King's song request with Stewart doing his best grizzled King impersonation: "Something snappy. Yeah, something, you know, kinda up tempo." Because Stewart recognizes that such displays are nothing more than pieces of pop culture trash posturing as legitimate news, I can move on and catch a few episodes of vintage The Real World. Media says something stupid. He mocks it. And balance in the universe is restored.
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Note to our readers: for additional essays on Hurricane Katrina and the life and art from that region, see the PopMatters blog, "Storyville".