Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Pandemic of News

Media coverage and official preparedness of the looming swine pandemic has been so comprehensive and apparently competent that there was even some praise left over for the Bush Administration ”for stockpiling 50 million doses of antiviral medications” that helped get efforts off the ground quickly this time. Though there were tragic loss of life and mistakes, this was not the 1918-19 Flu. People, via TV, radio, print, and (of course) the Internet, got informed. Around the world, people hunkered down for the worst. Once prodded by ‘missteps’ as we were with Hurricane Katrina, there are indications that our species is capable of massive coordinated actions towards a real threat. Just like forest creatures communicating and acting on the heat and crackle of a wildfire.

So, like animals sensible enough to produce offspring, we are good at acting quickly once danger is perceived. Good to know. But, what we seem especially poor at is long, drawn-out catastrophes. They challenge our attention and patience. We get bored quickly; we habituate to things that move around, but don’t come straight at us. Exasperatingly, our modern-day eyes and ears--the media--thrives on the New! too. AIDS, Climate Disruption, the (billions of) poor and hungry—even though just as deadly and tragic as the moment they breakout, challenge all of us to stay focused on what matters.

This is a problem, one that bumps us against our ability to react properly to real dangers. For while we are recognizing that Climate Disruption caused by anthropomorphic tampering (us by the billions doing stuff), much of what we are doing is disjointed and ineffective. Political views rule. Economic realities rule even more. We are ‘greening up’ but too many are getting bored by all the ‘greeney’ stuff. They’ve heard that before, it’s getting old, people are habituating.

Nevertheless, we are living amidst a slow-moving (in human time) catastrophe. Eventually, our environmental problems will catch up with us. Even if you can outrun a sea level change, your children may not. Brownfields are going un-cleaned. We’re still spending (federal stimulus) billions on fixing roads for gas-guzzlers and gnashing our teeth about the specter of a wind turbine near our country estate—while the planet traps CO2 and methane gas like Venus. (You don’t want your spaceship to land there.)

All while the media gently weeps about its own loss of (humongous) profits. (Last week a reporter asked President Obama if the newspaper industry too would get a bailout.) This is all nonsense on stilts. Regardless of how the news paradigm will look tomorrow, we will need a media that investigates and reports completely and honestly about the state of our environment—continually. Walter Pincus (Newspaper Narcissism) says with some authority: “Our press is not protected in order to merely echo the views of government officials, opposition politicians, and so-called experts."

If the media wants to survive, they are going to have to handle long-term critical issues in-depth. Clamping down on news aggregators (like Google and Yahoo), who are allegedly niggling away at Internet profits won’t solve the media’s systemic problem. When serious news is conveyed in a competent way, customers will come. Here’s a model for a media comeback: Climate Change is a Pandemic—it’s just slower.

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