Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"Oh, the humanity..."

When the giant rigid airship Hindenburg exploded in flame over Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, a radio reporter, Herb Morrison, was on hand recording the scene. His overexpressive reporting was captured on a wire recorder and later presented as an on-the-spot report. The reporter's relaxed, rapid paced delivery was soon pierced by deep sighs and exclamations like "Oh, the humanity!" At one point he apologized as he turned off the recorded to catch his breath. From this ignoble beginning came the journalistic tradition of broadcasting events as they happened. In a way that report and the thousands of others that followed over radio and TV in more recent decades were the precursors of today's modern CNN and Fox News Reports, where seasoned correspondents relate the breaking news of the day. The only difference is that today we are accustomed to seeing our news delivered live as it happens. We've watched two Gulf Wars waged over cable TV and even witnessed reporters delivering their dispatches from the battlefronts via cellphones. Here in Louisiana and New Orleans the nation witnessed the horrors of people plucked by helicopter from rooftops as reporters commented on the action. And there were also those reports which showed those unable to save themselves from rising waters, their bodies found in attics or floating in receding wakes. It all happened live on TV and we witnessed the tragedy firsthand. When America was attacked by Islamic fanatics who chose to crash airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, we watched it happen live. Yet for all the modern technological wonders that exist in broadcasting, there are limitations. Last week an estimated 13,000 to 24,000 victims were claimed as a result of a cyclone in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Their military junta refused the entry of Western broadcasters into what remains of their devastated country for political reasons of expediency. Yesterday in another land halfway across the globe, another catastrophic event claimed at least ten times as many victims as Hurricane Katrina and the breach of federal levees did. This was a level 7.9 earthquake that hit the heavily populated Sishuan province of China, a leader of the modern world community. But like the Myanmar cyclone, there were no pictures or videos to be viewed by the Western world. Hundreds of cellphone towers are down and reporters are finding it extremely difficult to file reports from the scene. With estimates of deaths in China running at least to 15,000 and many more thousands of injured still being accounted, these two tragedies will loom large for months to come, even up to the time when China wants to show off its best face for the upcoming Summer Olympiad in Beijing. What we don't see, we can't envision. Without broadcasts from the scene, we don't fathom the scale of these tragedies. I read the words in newspapers and I see abreviated reports on TV that attempt to approximate what huge losses of life and culture are being experienced. But without live from the scene reports, we are at best under-informed and at worst misinformed. I feel like that intrepid reporter shouting into a microphone: "Oh, this is terrible. This is one of the worst disasters in the world!" But no one can hear. No one can see. We are truly deaf and blind in an Information Age without information. The existence of a global neighborhood is hugely dependent on technology and the ability of world leaders to let the rest of us in. In Myanmar and China, Westerners are not largely welcomed, despite the fact they face critical shortages of medicine and supplies to sustain life in these hard-hit areas. It is up to us to ramp up support for these people, who despite their governments, need our help. I urge everyone to be responsible and socially active to help them now. As a former recipient of aid following Hurricane Katrina, I know just how much it will be appreciated by those unable to ask for assistance.

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