Perhaps it’s the linguistic barriers; parachuting anchors into Japan probably don’t even have Japanese tourist phrasebooks. But it’s amazing how absent Japanese people, officials or volunteers are from newscasts. A speech from the Japanese Prime Minister announcing the Fukushima reactors are at a crisis point didn’t merit coverage. By contrast, earlier ramblings of a tribal dictator fighting over empty sand? Wall to wall saturation.
Perhaps we’re overly critical of American news media (primarily broadcast). Yet our impression is of Americans talking primarily to Americans standing in debris fields without Japanese faces, voices or perspectives. American broadcasters in Egypt found translators and interviewed protestors, covered Mubarak addresses, etc. Yet the greatest natural disaster in modern times happens to be in a Japan without many Japanese on camera. So far.
There are vague references to homeless. And people without food, water, medicine, heat. Little coverage on what’s actually being done, what needs to be done. The difference with coverage in Haiti is stark. Perhaps because the Japanese social contract removes ‘good tv’ images of conflict, riots, or looting.
Instead, American networks latch onto more easily covered tangible things such as exploding nuclear reactors. Broadcast producers appear to book anyone with ‘nuclear’ in their job title, from disarmament types to nuclear power (pro or con) lobbyists. It’s a two-fer if the commentator is a physicist. Unsurprisingly the commentary about the Dai Ichi plants presents more chyron alarm than clarity – exchanges of ignorance.
A corollary to the American fixation on tangible Japanese buildings is obsession on what it means for us. Should California prepare for nuclear fallout? Could California plants at Diablo Canyon survive a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami? How will Californians buy a Prius going forward? What happens to Americans’ 401ks? And perhaps most salient to Americans, how will the crisis affect their plans to buy an iPad 2?
We don’t dismiss a nuclear crisis verging close to a true meltdown. That desperate situation, however, will unfold over considerable time. Should matters continue to deteriorate the damage and clean up will be a challenge for years. Meanwhile tsunami survivors, homeless, without shelter, food, water or medicine either get needed help or succumb. Which prompts the question, ‘If catastrophe victims get help and American tv doesn’t cover them, were they ever in danger?’