Cable news is predicated on one simple fact: Drama makes for good ratings, and all else is a distant secondary concern. That’s why political discussions on cable feel more like a low-level prizefight than a college lecture — the promoter doesn’t care who wins the fight, just that asses are in the seats. Media bias is often mischaracterized as a right/left dichotomy, when in fact it’s much more accurate to see the media as Don King, ie, adorned in jewels and blessed with a propensity for pomp.
I haven’t seen all of CNN’s Haiti coverage, and there’s a chance that some of it has been accidentally informative. That said, as far as I know there haven’t been any substantive discussions about Haiti’s massive, crippling debt [via] or the role the US and international financial institutions— ie, the IMF and the World Bank — played in strengthening the shackles of those bonds. It’s much easier to pull at the heartstrings of the public than to educate them by providing historical context; instead, give them an ahistorical account of a dramatic situation.
Enter CNN and Anderson Cooper, Reluctant Hero. The dreamy-eyed journo-model made his name during hurricane Katrina, and regardless of whether you think his onscreen antics were a passionate plea on behalf of the people of New Orleans, or a manipulative, media-savy career move, that disaster made Anderson Cooper “Anderson Cooper.”
Now, as his ratings plummeted, a golden opportunity presented itself. Haiti was the new New Orleans. Cooper arrived on the scene first, ready to deliver his brand of righteous, roll-up-your-sleeves journo-tainment. The public responded, shooting AC to number one in his time slot.
The last few days have found Cooper in his element. As Gawker reported last night, The Shimmery One found himself in the odd position of helping a child who had been hit in the head with a rock (click for the video, can’t embed it here). The Coopester literally carried the child to safety and handed him off to a Haitian who then ran down the street, kid in arms.
It’s dramatic footage, to be sure. But it’s not news. It’s the last act of a TV hospital drama, except there’s no script, and with the advent of donation texting by the Telecom giants, audience participation is built in. What do we learn about Haiti from this kind of coverage? Nothing, other than the situation is dire. To whatever extent we enjoy watching this footage is fine, but let’s not pretend we’re educating ourselves.
To be clear, the issue here isn’t that AC should have ignored the child, or that there’s something bad about offering a hand, or even that journalists should pretend to be completely removed from their environments. The issue is that Cable News now is nothing except the anchor saving the child. Or Sanjay Gupta performing brain surgery (WHAT!?, click Gawker link above). Or braving the hurricane winds. We have been trained to accept these images as News — which is to say News is nothing but images, the more dramatic the better.
Our collective attraction to tragedy seems to increase correspondingly with every new horrifying event the world (or, better, Cable News) throws our way. And with no shortage of tragedy coming down the pipeline — Climate change, a further broken health care system, etc. — we can all expect to see a lot of Anderson Cooper saving children one at a time, but no idea at all why he should have to in the first place.