some news, maybe not. Hurricane Katrina established beyond
doubt that national television journalism is dead. Kaput.
The glittering potential of cable TV news has been subverted
by a cabal of several huge corporations that look and operate
remarkably like the major record companies: There has been
a mad rush to the lowest common denominator. The notion of
an objective or even critical presentation of relevant reality,
the touchstone of journalism, simply does not exist on national
television anymore. Jon Stewart is just so right.
Thank God for the Internet, for blogs, and for a handful of
individuals who continue to operate with integrity, intelligence,
purpose, and a sense of duty. And except for local news, which
at least here continues to be real, you won’t find these things
with your clicker—you’ll need your mouse.
This past Monday, trying to find more than a surface report
on what was going on with Hurricane Katrina on television
was a hopeless and frustrating waste of time. Perhaps the
greatest and most idiosyncratic city in the country had been
laid to waste, and a vast low-lying rural region was underwater,
but you’d barely know it from channel surfing. The networks
were showing their usual array of entertainment shows, unbothered
by the staggering human suffering happening at the moment,
and the horrors that were so obviously to come. The news networks
were replaying videos of attractive “reporters” standing in
the wind and rain, yelling about the wind and rain. These
people were little more than rodeo clowns to Mother Nature’s
On CNN, Nancy Grace—the hysterical, adenoidal former criminal
prosecutor whose typical M.O. is to prattle on about inconsequential
crimes and to pillory those whom she’s decided are to blame—spent
a significant part of her show talking about that teenage
blonde girl who disappeared in Aruba three months ago. This
story is news for the singular reason that the major news
networks think that a story about an attractive blonde girl
being abducted by men with dark skin and all of the lurid,
pornographic subtext that goes along with it is something
that will sell advertising. Which makes those who continue
to tell us about this sad but manifestly irrelevant event
not journalists, but well-scrubbed two-bit whores.
Meantime, MSNBC gave us Tucker Carlson, the pasty neocon lapdog
whose career should have ended when Jon Stewart called him
out on Crossfire last year, with a faux-concerned facial
expression hovering over his pathetic bowtie, talking to various
governmental talking heads, all situated far from the action,
about what they thought was happening.
There was no real reporting going on. Most of the “news” that
was broadcast was trivial: folks restarting the party in the
French Quarter, and a nearby graveyard statue of Jesus that
“miraculously” survived the storm. An inordinate amount of
time was spent telling us that our president had interrupted
his vacation to be “concerned” and had pledged federal money
to help. Duh! Occassionally a ridiculous statistic was announced:
“Three confirmed dead in Mississippi; more deaths expected.
Now the cleanup begins!”
An attentive eighth grader could have told you that Katrina,
perhaps the most massive and potent hurricane in modern history
to hit the U.S. continent, had caused unspeakable damage to
one of the poorest and environmentally delicate and vulnerable
regions of the country. When Katrina’s eye was still a dot
in the gulf it was obvious to anybody with half a brain that
we were headed for a massive, unprecedented disaster. The
death count is now headed to four figures and maybe beyond.
Sure, there was a massive evacuation, but what about those
too poor, too stubborn, too suspicious, too infirm, too off-the-grid
to get away? They remain in the crosshairs. May we know about
them, care about them? The networks couldn’t let the true
grim reality of the hurricane get in the way of market share.
So let’s get a quick quote from Mississippi governor and political
hack Haley Barbour, and then air Tommy Lee Goes to College.
The exact same thing happened with the tsunami in December.
Eight hours after the 90-foot wave hit one of the most densely
populated coastlines in the world, the news services were
reporting absurdities like “35 confirmed dead in Sri Lanka.”
Then on to such banner topics as Michael Jackson and Martha
Stewart. The networks and cable news services are simply lazy,
stupid, and cheap. They are beneath contempt.
Monday, I found a local TV station in New Orleans with an
Internet feed that provided jarring, old-school journalism.
While Anderson Cooper danced in the rain on CNN, the local
newscasters on WWL (you can see them at wwltv.com) were somberly
delivering what was actually happening, much of it based on
first person observations: bodies floating in canals, levees
breaking, the roof shredding off the Superdome (while tens
of thousands of terrified refugees cowered inside), and the
shell-shocked Mayor Nagin’s unvarnished descriptions of the
carnage. And WWL didn’t break for commercials.
This shocking reality was barely hinted at on network and
cable television. I watched WWL in horror until I could watch
no more. A few hours later I tried to log on again and couldn’t
get on—I’d guess the capacity of the station’s servers was
exceeded by others who simply wanted to know what was going
At 11 PM, I tuned into Jon Stewart, certain that he would
reinforce, with his trademark ingenious humor, the disgust
I was feeling. But his show was a repeat. He probably couldn’t
take it either.