08 March 2010

Dangerous Clichés at The Times

Situation getting out of control in Chile’s second largest city. Photo credit.

In a reflection on media coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, Rebecca Solnit remarks:

"Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin: ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.

I’m talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a second wave of disaster. I’m talking about the treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol."
Yesterday, as if to punctuate her observation, The New York Times ran this Op-Ed by Donald McNeil, one of the paper's staff writers. The essays apparently was prompted by reports of widespread looting following the even more recent earthquake in Chile:
"Nonetheless, a pattern that now is a cliché of disaster journalism broke out there as well: Early reports of people raiding markets for food and diapers were quickly followed by pictures of people carrying TVs and dishwashers off into a city with no electricity. Intact stores were broken into. A department store in Concepción was set ablaze. In a few places, roving bands robbed anyone they could. Residents who formed self-defense posses were quoted saying that the “human earthquake” was worse than the geological one.

[. . .]

By midweek, with thousands of troops deployed, the pictures began shifting: young men spread-eagled on the ground with gun muzzles pressed behind their ears.

All in all, it sounded a lot like Haiti. Or like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Or like Dayton, Ohio, after the 1913 flood. Or like Rome in 410.

It is hard to name a single disruption in the social order, natural or man-made, that has not triggered looting somewhere. [. . .] Though looting starts spontaneously, how quickly it stops appears to depend on how rapid and severe a response it meets. That, in brief, is the argument for using force decisively."
That what McNeil reports is "a cliché of disaster journalism" seems lost on he and the editorial page crew at The Times. Does he question the cliché? Or, does he presume that journalists and their enabling editors and publishers, who nicely conform to the stereotype that Solnit identifies, are getting the story "right"? Professional courtesy, I suppose.

As a start toward thinking rather than regurgitating clichés, McNeil might have read this report from his own paper which suggests that in "New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina" what he calls "the argument for using force decisively" appears, simply put, to have been little more than a rationale for murder and cover-up. The alleged perpetrators are not "looters" but the officers from NOLA police department. Moreover, as these reports [1] [2] from The Nation suggest, the police were hardly the only ones who may have acted murderously. By peddling clichés, The Times is directly perpetuating the distorted ideas that elites use to rationalize violence and panic.

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