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.)
Rather than calmly provide information, Myers filled the day with unhinged, even testy, seismological explanations and impossible-to-follow metaphors. A tsunami (or the shore?) is "like a catcher's mitt," "like a banana"; the wave starts "like a rock thrown in a pond" and then it is not like a rock a thrown in the pond, not when you consider "the crescent, the catcher's mitt!" He spoke to us as if we were not listening to him - the gesticulating, the spitting, the dire warnings. "I don't want to sound like Chicken Little here," he said at one point. He did, though.
His anger gave way to letdown when the Hawaiian islands were not subsumed in the 8 a.m. hour, and remained relatively safe an hour later. Therefore, Myers concluded (hoped?), as he frantically scrawled giant, semicircular wave emissions across the Pacific, that the United States' entire West Coast had better hold on for dear life.
A little after 11 a.m., the cable news networks fixed their gazes on the Pacific beaches, on what looked to be a fabulous morning. As one CNN reporter expressed grave concern that the waves were overdue, a man and his dog frolicked in the surf. It would be many hours before this vigilance was rewarded with scenes of unmoored bumper-boats at a Northern California marina.
Myers then hung his hopes on the possibility that a noticeable wave would reach Chile in a couple of hours. I hung my hopes on his shift ending; when at last I left him, it was curtains for Easter Island.
Other channels decided to relocate their own disaster-movie narrative to nuclear-plant meltdown. A plot seemed to emerge: Can the United States get the coolant to the Japanese plant on time?
Crazy as it seems, viewers want to hear instead about people - injuries, relief efforts, rescues. It would have to wait until the Japanese dawn.
In the meantime, a moment of sympathy for that most pathetic of media creatures: the reporter who has to report on what the social networkers are saying, doing and tweeting. "The Japanese word for tsunami is actually only two characters," one of these poor souls reported. "That makes it really helpful with the 140-character limit."
Friday's news broadcasts seemed afflicted by a broken news-o-meter - the commercial breaks barely ceased, and there was still talk of the iPad 2, Libya and an hour-long White House news conference on gas prices and budget cutting. The day's only loser was Charlie Sheen, pushed briefly downstage but never off it.
Sunrise at last in Japan; the chance for actual news, a revised death estimate above 1,000. It was past 4 p.m., our time, when it at last occurred to American TV: This story is amazing all on its own.
Footage from a grocery store during the quake, shown repeatedly, triggered thoughts about Japanese culture. Employees, perhaps fixated on order and cleanliness, threw themselves against shelves to prevent merchandise from falling and making a big mess. Footage of swaying skyscrapers makes you want to hug your nearest structural engineer in utter gratitude. Frightening though it may seem to imagine oneself on the 17th floor, that swaying is what separates the First World from the Third.