The Haiti Infotainment
Posted on 1-February-2010
Die the Germans, die the Jews,
And all these breadless, homeless queues,
Give us this day our daily news
Louis MacNeice, Bar Room Matins
When poor Haiti was devastated by an earthquake some twenty days ago, major television news channels rushed their star anchors and correspondents to 'cover' the disaster. For the first two days or so the main news bulletins of two English language international channels which I habitually watch reported nothing but the Haitian disaster, with their anchors/reporters standing against the backdrop of diverse piles of rubble, mouthing sententious platitudes about the suffering of people, and about the scale of destruction, the camera cutting from time to to views of the listed dome of the Presidential Palace or of dead and wounded bodies. In time the reportage shifted to rescue efforts by teams from different countries, the most noticeable among them being those from the USA and West Europe, and then to celebrity visitors, the most prominent among them being Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-moon. And then there were days of reports of miracles of survival and rescue of individuals after days under debris. Announcement of aid from different quarters, the largest being the USA, were inevitably highlighted. The reporters did not fail to highlight the lack of coordination and the collapse of local administration as factors inhibiting efficient distribution of food, water, medicines and other similar supplies, looting and violence by mobs and the risk of epidemic inherent in decomposing human corpses lying undisposed of. With the beginning of the long hard effort of rebuilding the neighbourhoods, towns, villages and lives of individuals destroyed by the earthquake, Haiti barely gets a one line mention, if at all, in various media outlets.
Almost exactly five years ago a devastating tsunami destroyed large tracts in southeast and south Asia. The Indonesian island of Sumatra was the worst hit. Television coverage of that disaster was curiously similar to that of the Haitian earthquake, right down to observations about lack of coordination, risks of epidemic, miraculous survivals and the huge task of reconstruction, information about aid offered by different countries and organisations, down even to the the visit of Bill Clinton to Sumatra along with a consignment of various supplies. Naturally there were some variations. The possible disappearance of entire tribes in the Indian islands of the Andaman and Nicobar group was talked about as was the almost "shocking" refusal of the Indian Government to accept international assistance in dealing with destruction the tsunami had caused in India. In time news organisations moved on to report on other matters in other parts of the world.
In this day and age people everywhere in the world have deep interest in knowing what is happening in other countries and other places, especially to other members of their species. News organisations of different kinds fulfill the necessary and useful function of giving the information about events that people want. It is also true that when people hear of sufferings caused to other humans by a natural or human agent, many among them are impelled to do what they can to help the sufferers. Some of the nobler souls among them do in these circumstances what they can to ensure that their left hand does not know what the right is doing. But many do not rise to that standard of behaviour because of the entirely understandable human desire for winning the approbation of their fellow beings.
Of all the news media, the television is probably the most powerful and nearly ubiquitous. It offers great advantages to those who wish to inform and educate, to those who wish to entertain and to those who wish to propagandise and mislead. The fare it offers is good, indifferent or bad. I for example remember the thrill of watching in real time the first steps of man on the moon or the interest with which I watched, again in real time, the guns of Boris Yeltsin destroy the building housing the rebellious Russian parliament. On both occasions the commentary of reporters was minimal and the anchors nearly invisible. But most of the fare the television offers can be mind-numbing. I confess to watching in moments of mental laziness third rate movies or soaps almost in a state of stupor. As in the case of many other technologies, in the case of television also there is a down side and most of it comes from more and more of television being driven by the desire to increase earnings if not also driven by political or business interests of those who own or control television organisations. When this happens everything on television, including news and views, becomes a show.
When in Haiti or Sumatra practised television crews show greater interest in crafting an interesting show at the centre of which is their anchor or reporter or a visiting celebrity or the heroic efforts of their national rescue teams than limiting themselves to giving basic information, it reeks of a crass tendency to wallow in other people's miseries and offends. Such presentations encourage even the rescuers to try and become part of the show, for the temptation of being seen on television overwhelms many. President Rene Preval of Haiti observed the other day that some of the aid workers seemed to be showboating. At least one person of I do not remember what description, interviewed by a television channel, while demurring over Preval's remark also admitted that some aid workers did try to show off for example their bright tee shirts printed with various advertisement logos. Preval was closer to the truth than this interviewee, a truth that hopefully will arouse some consciences.
While I try thus to spit out my distaste at the great infotainment organised by important television channels over the earthquake in Haiti, I wonder how people would have reacted if there had been modern television to cover the fall of Bastille. After watching a Bastille infotainment, would William Wordsworth have written: "Bliss was in that dawn to be alive"? I suspect he would have switched off his telly.