The Japan Syndrome – Tuning Out So You Will Tune In

March 16, 2011

Even though I have not been a TV newsman for many years, I still find myself suspended in the tension between fearing random personal tragedy involving my family and hoping for the kind of world-class, big “T” Tragedy CNN trots its news personalities to.

News big enough to break through the background of violence in America, or the somewhat higher threshold for what constitutes a big story occurring overseas. Covering tragedy, especially internationally, can be expensive, you know.

Tragedy is always going to happen… Japan drew the short straw this time around.

And while the Land of the Rising Sun will undoubtedly rise again, for now, she is against the ropes, and we are riveted to the the slow motion events still unfolding as nuclear particles decide whether they want to devolve into a melt-down break dance in one or all of the six side-by-side power plants built on that beautiful but earthquake prone stretch of beachfront.

It is a big “T” kind of tragedy. And until things heat up even hotter elsewhere, we tune in. In huge numbers.

Talk about the ultimate reality show.

We have six ticking nuclear time bombs and 50 volunteers in moon suits battling to the death to contain the chain reaction.

And while we await the outcome, we have an unlimited supply of new pictures of the destructive power of the earthquake, or the rush of the tsunami and the resulting inundation, the food shortages, housing shortages, fresh water shortages, electricity shortages all occurring in a backdrop of winter and snow.

We’ll be right back after this break.

In truth, reporting from this type of event doesn’t take much skill. Even a dolt could report from a hotel on the fringe of a nuclear melt-down and have something on the air that would attract an audience.

How do we react?

In public we say – The Poor Japanese… suffering unimaginably at the hand of Mother Nature and overwhelmed technology.

And in the newsroom, we never say, but we feel… we are lucky. We have our lead.

Oh hell. Some of us actually do say it out loud. A senior producer in one of my TV newsrooms back in L.A. actually had this sign on his desk during the First Gulf War – NO PEACE DURING SWEEPS! The translation – for those who don’t understand TV Talk – has to do with wanting the war to extend beyond the ratings period – so we would continue to attract more eyeballs – and thus be able to command more $$$ from our advertisers.

Talk about your March Madness.

Given my roots in the news media, I might be forgiven for rooting for mayhem, so long it avoids me and those I love. And avoids my neighbors, extended family, community, friends…. and happens somewhere else. Preferably very far away, but close enough to get pictures back from in time for our newscast.

Those feelings lie just beneath my sincere prayers for speedy resolution of the latest crisis and recovery for those raw from their loss.

But, tragedy is an ongoing theme in the human experience.

Wasn’t there just an earthquake in New Zealand, and last year didn’t more than 250,000 die in Haiti? Aren’t those refugees still living in tents?

Oh, and by the way, reading the papers or watching TV you would never know we are still fighting a war on at least three fronts, and US Servicemen and women are still coming home in body bags. And on the verge of doing something overt in Libya.

Why don’t we hear about those stories any more?

It should be no revelation that in the news business, newer and bigger is better. The pictures and words are fresh and more dramatic. Crisis to Crisis Coverage. More people tune in and eyeballs equal revenue.

How can we, as individuals reporting or watching the news comprehend the magnitude of the horror of this parade?  How do we prioritize it? Put it in perspective?

Is it as simple as – Those poor bastards!  (pause)  Pass the sugar, please?

Does it make it worse when 10,000 are affected, or 1 million.  Or just one family?

On the day of the quake and the great tsunami, my local newspaper reported on a trial and sentencing. Seems in a small city just outside of Chicago a man was walking his two sons, 8 and 11 to the drugstore. Maybe the kids needed some school supplies. Or maybe some medicine. Point is, it was a dad and his kids. He had just gotten off work. Gunfire erupted around the trio, they were caught in the crossfire, and the dad was shot in the back and killed.  His frightened sons ran into the drugstore to safety. And now a widow and two children are suffering with their own calamity, their own personal tragedy, their scar, their horror.

This tragedy with a small “t” barely registers on the public any more.  Literally hundreds of these events each year in Chicago alone. Thousands across the U.S.

Some of the random violence that happens in our cities and towns on a daily basis is grim beyond any sense of rationality. It is disheartening to see what people do to each other.  I mean, actually witness the aftermath with your own eyes.

Local news in the big city is such a staggering parade of human misery I had to opt out eventually. I made the conscious choice not to voluntarily fill myself with those images any more.

A veteran cameraman I worked with shook his head after covering his umpteenth child victim of a drive-by shooting in South Central Los Angeles. In those instances, the police always covered the body, but left one of the artifacts of childhood visible nearby… a bicycle, a sneaker, a basketball… you could artfully frame it in a shot and make a really, really sad photo.  If anyone noticed it, they would probably cry. Anyway, Bill turned to me and said…” they always offer counseling to the kids at the school.  What about us?”

As news-people, we have developed a way to tune out so we could function well enough to get you to tune in. And when you lose that ability, if you are smart, you get out of the business.

In a rare quiet moment, a bit of the horror I have witnessed, on the tube or in person, shatters my own containment vessel… and penetrates just enough. I find myself crying tears – of thanks for what I still have, today.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

steve hammill March 17, 2011

I feel vindicated. Thank you for having the courage to document this:

>>>And in the newsroom, we never say, but we feel… we are lucky. We have our lead.
>>>Oh hell. Some of us actually do say it out loud.

I made that comment in my newsroom many years ago. Even though my peers were foaming at the mouth hoping for more death and destruction in the spirit of “if it bleeds it leads” … I thought they were going to string me up!

Leslie March 17, 2011

Amen! Doesn’t it seem ludicrous that while wars continue and nuclear threat abounds that there are people continuing to beat the drums of war to take us into Libya?
I don’t believe in Armageddon so maybe someone can come up with another word that speaks to the chaos and peril humanity faces at this moment in time.

Sandra Greer March 18, 2011

The chaos and peril have always been there. This is the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, which is just one relatively minor example. That one was in the newspapers and had some repercussions, although the anti-labor forces seem to have forgotten about it.

But it wasn’t televised. The technology created the “media”, and the media created the need to be informed at all times of whatever the “lead” is. They give us what they think we want.

That leaves us with the alternatives of being overwhelmed or unplugging from the system.

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