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Thursday, May 15, 2008
THE TRUISM "THIS DEFIES DESCRIPTION" really can be used too easily - especially by broadcast journalists reporting “live” - but it certainly applies to the almost literally indescribable effects of China's vast earthquake.
As all too often in such disasters - and we need only look to last week and Myanmar/Burma’s cyclone, to 2005 and Kashmir’s earthquake, and of course to late 2004 and the tsunami that crashed throughout the region - the very remoteness and inaccessibility of the territory adds to the media’s difficulty in bringing us in the West the fullest news.
Myanmar’s ruling generals are still, in the depths of their paranoia, refusing access to journalists and even to aid workers, but in China it’s been with surprising speed that we are now getting … through all the chaos and the driving, swamp-making rain … powerful video pictures and some comprehensive and authoritative surveys of the damage. These include those wrenching accounts of thousands of people entombed - both dead and amazingly alive (above left) - in Sichuan Province’s flattened communities.
The more agile and technologically less encumbered medium of radio generally does better in such situations. But rarely does it achieve what National Public Radio has so effectively managed this week.
Because its afternoon co-hosts, Melissa Block and Robert Siegel were lucky enough (if that’s what we should call it) to be right in the provincial center of Chengdu, doing some location-recording for future special editions devoted to China’s economy, they were on-site from the very first shuddering of the earth and sudden rush of people (including their own interviewees) out of buildings and into the street. And very soon they were deep into the heart - in Wenchuan county, 60 miles away - of the catastrophe.
A very much newer medium, though, played a leading role while most mainstream communications were still struggling to catch up. Twitter, the reputedly too-cool-for-school, short text-messaging plaything designed to keep your friends abreast of whatever activity you want them to know about, turned out to be a fast avenue of hard information about the disaster.
There’s been some controversy whether the social networking service actually beat the United States Geological Survey with first news of the quake, and it might just have done, by a matter of, say, three minutes … but of course only USGS was able to confirm for sure exactly what the seismic event was, and its rating (7.9) on the Richter scale.
**DISCUSSION OF THIS COLUMN AIRS EVERY WEEK ON WHDD - ROBIN HOOD RADIO**
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IN A REALLY TRADITIONAL MEDIUM, THAT OF NEWSPRINT, the oddity of the week was Cablevision beating out Rupert Murdoch for possession of Newsday. Rarely does Murdoch get beaten, especially not just three days after he goes on record (as he did in this case) saying he’s about to finalize a done deal.
He finally decided, I’m told, that Cablevision’s higher offer ($650 million, as opposed to his own $580 million) was just not worth trying to match, once he re-examined the poor performance potential of Newsday.
Which leaves the question, what’s in it for Chuck and Jimmy Dolan? (above center) - those often incomprehensible father-and-son owners of Cablevision (- owners, too, of the benighted property Madison Square Garden - and of the even-sadder New York Knicks). Not unusually their actions have prompted business page headlines and stand-out quotes like “Cablevision Offer Baffles Wall Street - Again” and “the bid has resulted in a collective head-scratch”.
My own guess is that they’ll go in a big way for what is less popularly these days called “synergy” - between Newsday and their TV cable service throughout Long Island, the newspaper’s central home territory. The TV supply to islanders’ homes will be boosting free introductory offers for a subscription to the paper, and the paper will be offering advertisers (who have been deserting Newsday like they have many other print outlets) joint arrangements to appear at discounted rates on TV screens simultaneously.
It may work, but it’s a stretch. You don’t have to be a New Yorker or an avid follower of basketball to appreciate one commentator’s wry question that I heard: “Can the Dolans do for Newsday what they’ve done for the Knicks?”
QUICK UPDATES ON TWO OF THE MEDIA BEAT's RECENT ISSUES:
** BORDERS GROUP INC bookstores, whose poor sales numbers I recently reported as making them try new display techniques (with books facing out on the shelves, so daringly) now seem simply to be resorting to cuts in their inventory.
Their 500 stores are just not buying books from publishers in the quantities they were – much to the publishing companies’ distress, even though their executives are not willing to say so out loud for fear of offending such a major outlet.
One who’s often braver than most, Carolyn Reider, CEO of Simon & Schuster, wouldn’t discuss the matter at any length with me, but she did comment briefly in an industry newsletter Publishers’ Lunch that Borders are “buying more conservatively and limiting stock. If books are not there they cannot be sold”. The impact on publishers like S & S could be up to 20% of their profits.
** IN ZIMBABWE, where the western media are having a hard time sticking with the country’s agonizingly tortuous electoral dispute, the dictatorial President Robert Mugabe is now making ready - but to his convenience not until July - for a run-off election against the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai who came so close to winning in March's first (suspiciously conducted) round of voting. But unsurprisingly, increasing intimidatory violence is part of Mugabe's preparations (a police beating, pictured above right). Foreign reporters are finding it challenging to get a handle on it all, but as before in Zimbabwe I’ve found it helpful to rely on the Churches and on the medical profession.
The British charity Christian Aid (with whom I should disclose I used to work) reports from its many contacts on the ground that churches which open their doors to opposition supporters terrorized by armed government heavies are finding themselves staked out by those same thugs, who chase away those who come for food and shelter.
And the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights says:
“Our members have reported a dramatic escalation in incidents of organized violence and torture with the number of victims documented in the post election period now standing at over 900 … There has been a dramatic increase in violence since the beginning of May. In the last 24 hours alone, 30 victims of violence have been treated for limb fractures in Harare hospitals and clinics.”
We can expect to see closer and more detailed media coverage of the government’s outrages now that a visiting United Nations delegation and the US ambassador James McNee have had, with journalists as witnesses, some face-to-face encounters with examples of Mugabe’s brutish officials. One goon ran his car into the Ambassador’s shins, as part of their tense stand-off during a group of diplomats’ fact-finding trip.
Much worse violence than this - the Mugabe-sanctioned torture and killing of his own citizens - should be getting a lot more detailed international press attention.