Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Heart of Media Darkness

So it’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me, what with an out-of-town guest, house- and pet-sitting, teaching, and all the parades, parties, and general pomp and frivolity of Mardi Gras. As if that weren’t enough, I was also on CNN.

Yep, CNN found out about this here blog through channels that remain somewhat murky to me, and called for an interview. Seems they wanted someone to provide a New Orleanian’s perspective on what the media has done wrong (and right, I suppose) in covering Katrina and her aftermath, and I’m absolutely not going to pass up a chance to criticize CNN on CNN. Not to mention the chance to get the blog out to a much, much, much wider audience, which I’ve already noticed has made a difference (hi, CNN people!).

They mailed me out a web-cam, which I had to hook up to a friend’s computer because mine is a wheezy dinosaur incapable of supporting such technology, and had me on-hand for an interview during a taping of “On the Story” the Friday before Mardi Gras. This, by the way, while parades were going by and I was missing out on incredibly valuable beads and other throws, but these are the sacrifices I’m willing to make to get New Orleans’ story told.

Let me tell you how surreal this whole experience was. First off, once I got the camera working, it put a picture of me up on the computer that I could watch. After spending a good twenty minutes getting me placed correctly, all I could think while looking at this utterly unflattering close-up of my face was, “Wow, I am so fucking bald.” I had a good forty-five minutes of sitting there waiting for my turn to think about that. Plus, that close-up eliminated any chance of showing off my extremely cool "Defend New Orleans” sweatshirt.

Also on the computer was a shot of the woman interviewing me, Jacki Schechner, who could not have been nicer, all in this weird blurry, jumpy, slightly-delayed web-cam view. The thing about this, though, is that all the action takes place on the computer screen, while the camera is down below it, and even though I tried very hard to look at the camera while talking, I kept glancing up at the computer screen, which I could tell made it look like I was staring off into space somewhere above the audience’s heads, perhaps at the lovely art they have hanging over the back of their couch at home.

After the wait of forty-five minutes, they hit me with three questions, and I did my best to answer them intelligently, but of course I felt like I was saying all the wrong things. It’s incredibly hard to say something articulate, thoughtful, and meaningful in three minutes. All that waiting, and then bang, it’s over. Off-camera, Jacki gave me a look that was either a reassuring smile or a sign that she was a little disappointed, hopefully because we didn’t get to talk more and not because I sucked it up, though it’s hard to read expressions on a computer screen. I asked her if I did okay, and she assured me that I did, though then admitted she hadn’t been able to hear any of my answers because her producer was constantly talking in her ear. I did not find this reassuring.

Nothing against Jacki (sounds like it was more her producer's doing), but I also don’t think it’s particularly good journalism. Shouldn’t the journalist be listening to the responses given? The producer should shut up and let her listen. As a counter-example, I have been interviewed by NPR twice since the disaster. Once, when “Day by Day” talked to me and some friends about the State of the Union address, and again when I ran into an NPR reporter at a Mardi Gras party. Both times, they spent way more time talking and listening to me. During the State of the Union, Audie Cornish arrived well before the address, recorded us for at least half an hour, kept recording us during the whole speech, and interviewed us again after. It lasted for over two hours, and got edited down to about five minutes. Trust me, that five minutes is much more packed and articulate than the three minute CNN blab and dash.

That said, I actually have no real idea how I did because I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone else when to see it. By accident, I caught a bit of the show right before my last answer and suddenly realized that not only did they show me when actually asking me questions, but also when just referring to me, which they would do without warning. This I did not realize at the time, and I assumed I was off-camera. I can only imagine the nose-picking, beer-drinking, and crotch-scratching that went out on national television.

Oh, the horror, the horror.

As for what I said, you can read a transcript. I talked about the way New Orleans is portrayed as a polarized city – black and poor vs. rich and white – which misses a lot of complexity. Not that it doesn’t have truth to it, but it would take way more than thirty seconds, and way more space than I have on this blog, to properly discuss race, poverty, and the way those intercepted and interacted with Katrina and the on-going recovery. That’s a book I hope someone more expert than I is working on. I also talked about the portrayal of Mardi Gras as just a big party, though didn’t have time to explain what it really means, and had no chance to mention the obsession with sensationalism, the insistence on controversy, the determination to strip everything down to two opposing views. Hopefully, I’ll elaborate on all that later on this blog.

Ms. Strawberry asked me how it went, and I replied with a shrug and “eh.” Without further explanation, she said, “It lasted two minutes and they asked all the wrong questions.” Yep, pretty much.

So, if you really want my ten-second sound bite on what the media, by which I really mean television news, did wrong before, during, and after Katrina (or any story), it’s this: despite their unbelievably massive resources and serious responsibility to a properly functioning democracy, they never take the time to get the story right.

Still too long? Then I’ll give you one word: over-simplification. That’s the theme of everything I said to CNN. But then, I guess that’s why I keep blogging.


jwrkngstif Wisconsin said...

Perhaps a suggestion for getting the REAL New Orleans story out...

NPR's This American Life?

I also get real tired of the cable news networks' (CNN, FOX, MSNBC...)tabloid (SUN,Weekly World News, National Enquirer....)approach to news.

Just goes to show that the USA is headed down Bread and Circus highway, lead by Geo. W. Nero Caligula Ceasar Bush.

Emmy said...

"It’s incredibly hard to say something articulate, thoughtful, and meaningful in three minutes."

I think that's how I feel sitting down to an exam; I'm all prepped, I have on my lucky shirt, studied for hours, I know just what to say, then the piece of paper gets plopped on the desk and the mind freezes- becoming a block of icy meat in your skull staring blankly at the sheet; or in your case the computer screen.