TV review: Shocking footage from Japan, amplified by cable news

A massive 8.9-magnitude quake Friday triggered a tsunami along the coastline north of Tokyo. A nuclear reactor was left unstable by the aftershocks, stoking fears of a meltdown.
By Hank Stuever
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 7:23 PM

Waking into routine multimedia consciousness Friday morning, American TV viewers and Web surfers (there is no distinction anymore) were met with horrifying aerial footage from Japan's northeastern coastline. One of the biggest earthquakes in a century had triggered a sludge-filled tsunami. Little stops us in our digital tracks anymore, but tsunamis sure do.

Engorged with flaming debris, the wave oozed its way across neighborhoods, highways, an airport terminal and vast farm fields, picking up cars, boats, planes - and these images oozed across media platforms, as well.

Old-fashioned TV-in-the-morning viewers may have first caught this, along with transfixing video of a boat aswirl in a whirlpool, on the Weather Channel, anticipating their Local on the 8s.

As any regular viewer knows, the Weather Channel increasingly considers itself a full-service news operation - part Anderson Cooper, part Doppler Dan, part Chicken Little - and yet the channel also remains fixed on its primary directive, which is to deliver the weather in a more proximate way. Thus the network found itself oddly toggling between some snow in the upper Midwest, floodwaters in New Jersey and the specter of "hundreds of bodies" reported to be floating in the wreckage of Sendai.

It was difficult to discern which thing the Weather Channel thought was the worst, or even the most newsworthy. Between commercial breaks, the earthquake seemed to have taken precedence.

This attention-deficit disorder was evident most of the day, on all the channels. TV coverage of Japan's disaster was a strange lesson in media magnitude theory: Unlike the devastating tsunami of 2004 and the Haitian earthquake last year, in which the mathematics of despair are calculated in direct proportion to poverty and infrastructure, Friday's calamity occurred in a place (and to a society) where they build things to withstand.

The disaster happened in the middle of an afternoon in the very birthplace of the personal video device, guaranteeing that we've perhaps seen just a fraction of the shaking and flooding and burning clips that will make their way online and onto TV in the coming hours and days.

When the 2004 tsunami hit, almost everything we knew of it - visually - came many hours after the initial news, courtesy of early-rising Christmastime tourists in Thailand with camcorders. For days, the networks seemed to suffer a palpable yearning for more footage or still photographs, which would never come, and thus aired the same footage over and over. It would be up to the reporters on the scene to collect descriptive details from survivors.

That was then. A surfeit of video this time not only mesmerizes, it also reassures. Preparedness and safety regulation immediately reduced the potential death toll by hundreds of thousands.

In other words, if there's video coming out this quickly, then the people who are sending it are okay. That made it difficult to get a fix on how such a massive quake (8.9 on the Richter scale) didn't look somehow worse.

Not that the networks didn't try to personalize it themselves.

CNN has a meteorologist and severe-weather guy, Chad Myers, who treats his weather map much the same way Glenn Beck treats a chalkboard, which means he treats his viewers like a bunch of idiots. (His tempestuous delivery style goes a ways back; on YouTube he can be forever seen barking at an on-air colleague - "Well, if you would let me talk!!" - during his Hurricane Katrina forecasts in 2005.)

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