White Noise: News from Inside the Media Bubble
If a tree falls in the forest…
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, the horrific spectacle unfolded before Americans’ eyes in almost real time. The news media was a step ahead of the federal government, and images of the elderly and infirm languishing in wheelchairs without medical assistance, food and water at the New Orleans Convention Center prompted outrage. Many Americans had friends in New Orleans, and text messages soon became a personal medium of news delivery. It was immediately clear that the toll in lives lost, battered and disrupted would be high. And it was: Most estimates about a year later put the total number of dead at just under 2,000. Note then the stark contrast in how US media consumers have received information about Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. The cyclone hit the Irrawaddy Delta on May 3, and eight days later was reporting an official government death toll of 23,000, while outside aid experts suggested it could reach 100,000. This is several orders of magnitude beyond what happened in the Gulf Coast. There are several factors that might account for the muted interest in news from Myanmar: geographical distance, cultural differences and, most insidiously, the trickle of information resulting from the military junta’s foot-dragging on allowing international aid and the fact that reporters must work in secrecy and anonymity to file their stories. The Times reported Sunday that 1.5 million people face starvation and disease, and “countless” bodies drift unattended in the tides of the Irrawaddy Delta. Isolated villages report anywhere from three to 20 people dead, and the government is conspicuous for its absence. Which raises the question: What is news? What we care about, or what’s happening?
For weeks now, the sale of Long Island’s Newsday seemed to be shaping up as an old-fashioned, old-media throwdown between the financiers of New York City’s top tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News. Then Cablevision stepped in with a bigger offer. The sale, announced last weekend, could be a watershed moment for the newspaper, providing, as it does, the sort of synergistic platform integration that gives publishers wet dreams. Cablevision provides cable television, internet and phone service. What it doesn’t provide is content. Enter Newsday. The newspaper will join a portfolio that includes a local news network, the free weekly amNew York, the Knicks and the Rangers.
Also up in the Big Apple, New York Times media columnist David Carr will be releasing his memoirs later this year. But according to an excerpt pinched by New York magazine, it’s not exactly the humble tale of a diligent reporter rising through the ranks of the media elite. Carr, who grew up in Hopkins, Minn., spent the better part of the 1980s as a crackhead, married the mother of his twin daughters while the couple was dealing and using, and somehow wound up at the Gray Lady. The confession comes in a vein similar to that of Ruben Castaneda, the Washington Post reporter whose epic feature about his life as a crackhead ran in that paper in December, and to a lesser extent James Frey, who made up much of what he tried to pass as truth in A Million Little Pieces. But Carr’s story is different, somehow, because… well, geez, the guy is practically required reading for anyone in this business and also he seems like a real nice guy. He’ll be speaking at this year’s Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, held next month in Philadelphia, and I know what I want to ask him about. The book, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own, comes out in September. But you can pre-order it on nightofthegun.com.