“Eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” wrote TS Eliot. Such are the eyes of the tsunami: large, brown, velvet eyes flecked with highlights, like fresh chestnuts. The eyes of children, who are beyond crying but may never laugh again, who have lost those who love them. Who will love them now?
The eyes of mothers, who cannot even now stop their tears. “I was holding her little hand when the wave came.” And again, “I told her to hold on tight. I told her to hold on tight.” The eyes of fathers and brothers, men with slight bodies and hard muscles, farmers and fishermen, used to working hard, now checking for bodies in morgues and under the plastic sheeting covering the corpses laid out in a public road.
The greatest natural disaster in living memory; the sea had gone berserk, and the land was unreliable. It has brought forth an amazing torrent of support, of private money and government money and money from organizations. Hardly anyone who could read was untouched by the newspaper accounts by reporters around the rim of the Indian Ocean, the astounding full extent of the disaster. Hardly anyone who could watch TV could shut out the eyes of the orphaned and the widowed and the desolated.
More than a century ago there was Krakatoa, the volcano eruption that killed 40,000, blotted out the sun and made daylight dark around the world. That was in that other millennium. Here in the new millennium, the news event that captured the whole world’s attention was brought to that whole world by the oldest and most traditional of crafts, professional newspeople, reporters who went to the scene to describe what they saw, cameramen who pointed their lenses at orphaned children, grieving adults, rubble and destruction.
There are those who have been saying that the bloggers, the privateers of the Internet, would bring us the news of tomorrow. Some bloggers reported some facts from around the ocean’s rim, the way ham radio operators used to, but otherwise the blogosphere was essentially silent.
As always happens when a news event captures the attention of the world, newspapers sold more copies, and television stations and networks increased their viewers. So did the cable news channels. But CNN gained more than the Fox News Channel. CNN moved reporters and camera crews all over the blighted area-an area usually so remote from the concerns of the day that few news organizations maintain staff there. Fox News relied on a reporter in Thailand and reporters in Washington and New York. The tsunami was a news story among other news stories, like tax cuts and the Ohio recount. People were talking about CNN’s Anderson Cooper. No one was talking about anybody from Fox.
The networks, too, blanketed the area. NBC sent Brian Williams; CBS’s Dan Rather turned up. Peter Jennings of ABC was advised by doctors not to go, but Diane Sawyer of ABC’s “Good Morning America” went. They ate what they could and slept when they could and night after night they had the story. Almost as though they were in the wrong millennium.
The tsunami was not a controversial story. It had nothing in it to support the confrontation and shouting that is the meat of the 24/7 cable news channels. In fact, if Fox gives some snippets of headlines every hour and a complete newscast now and then, but spends the bulk of its time arguing with invited guests, shouting over shouters to be heard and trying to distill the meaning of news you already know, should it be called a news channel at all?
Some of the newspaper writers who write about television described the conditions under which the journalists at the scene were working. They made it sound heroic. A few castigated the big-name anchors for arriving at the scene so late. But that was just piddling. There is always some piddling.
It is too bad in a way that this took place at a time when the confidence of the American public in its journalism is at some kind of low, down there, according to the pollsters who ask about such things, with used-car salesmen and those who sell insurance. But when the public wanted news, it turned to newspeople.
That is the important thing: When there is real news to be reported, only a professional reporter will get it to you. It has been that way for more than a century. Advancing technology gets it to you faster, and in color, but for there to be news, someone has to go get it. And it is better if that someone knows what he or she is doing. n
Reuven Frank is a former president of NBC News.