meltdown

On this, a weekend when the world changed, the thing I will remember most is the infuriating and utter failure of the television networks to cover the story well, or even serviceably.

The exemplary moment came Sunday night a little after 7, when CNN started with a nuclear scientist who stumbled his way through an interview and who was then asked to stick around, while the anchor talked with…Bill Nye, ‘The Science Guy.’

Those were the twin poles of the weekend – incoherence and irrelevance. It’s obvious the story is close to impossible to cover, even after three days. The devastation is so complete in northeastern coastal Japan, and the government there has been, to be charitable, vague about the issues surrounding the nuclear plants.

And yet, and yet…the overall impression one gets is that the networks are threadbare,  as if they’ve been asked to do a job they’re no longer up to doing. CNN  was the worst offender: for all the individual bad, awkward moments, the most awful thing was how you could spend hours watching and just not learn much. All the way from Friday night through Sunday night, you could hear over and over again that there was or was not a full or maybe partial meltdown at one or maybe two reactors. What few facts floated by, like the Japanese government trying to cool a reactor with seawater, were repeated endlessly.

Or perhaps CNN was not the worst. That distinction should go to MSNBC, which simply elected not to play. Instead, on Sunday we got at least two showings of the network’s insta-documentary on Charlie Sheen. MSNBC should from now on be excused from the list of organizations that get to put ‘news’ in the description of what they do.

On the other hand, Fox – which is usually terrible when playing outside the narrow range of its expertise, political assassination – did better than expected. It was still cheap shirt thin, but the anchors were brisk and business-like and didn’t seem quite as tempted to devolve into mindless pathos. Shepard Smith remains the network’s most valuable player and his work Friday and Saturday had an authority to it that no other net – including the big three – could muster.

And that’s the final rub: what has happened to Japan is not just a major natural disaster. It’s arguably the most connected, most information rich country on the planet suffering a massive disruption –  a particularly 21st century kind of mayhem, even more than 9-11. (Think how much more connected we all have become since 2001.) And yet the broadcast nets pretty much carried on as normal, with the addition of an hour here or there. They seemed strained, as if they knew what was going on was vitally important, but weren’t quite sure to whom, or why, and besides, it’s the weekend and there are basketball tournaments and golf matches to show.

(Update – CNBC was covering the story Sunday night, and while there wasn’t much new in what I watched – the early results from overseas exchanges aside – they started to add numbers, detail and a little context. They seemed comfortable with specificity in a way the other nets weren’t.)

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