Thursday, September 04, 2008

Geraldo, I'm ready for my close-up. Geraldo?

There are 250,000 stories in the Darkened City. America's not interested in any of them.

They're not in the script.

IT'S BEEN FEWER than three days since Gustav worked over South Louisiana, devastating towns like Houma, Grand Isle, Lafitte, Plaquemine and Baton Rouge . . . my hometown. Baton Rouge got whacked. Devastated. Laid waste.

My hometown is a dark city tonight. It is a city under curfew. And it is a city of shortages -- short of food, short of ice, short of gasoline.

Baton Rouge also is a city of trees, a city enveloped by a beautiful canopy of old oaks, and magnolias, and pecans, and gums, and pines. Many of those trees tonight lay on the ground.

Across roads.

Atop homes.

Over electric and phone lines.

A lot of my hometown, officials say, might have power in a week or so. The rest might take a month or more to put back online.

For that inland swath of the state, Gustav was the worst hurricane in living memory. Damage will be in the billions and billions of dollars. So, what do we see on the national TV news . . . what do we read in our local newspapers around America?

This: New Orleans' levees didn't bust. New Orleanians clamor to return home. A damaged New Orleans is being repopulated, despite officials' pleas for residents to hold off.

UNDERSTANDABLY, folks in Baton Rouge -- and Houma, Plaquemine and West Feliciana Parish -- are wondering what up with that?

What up with that isn't brain surgery, exactly, this inability of the national media (and the national media spotlight) to adjust to the disaster that happened, as opposed to the disaster they expected. Look at it this way: The news business isn't the news business anymore.

If you look at national TV news -- or the failing newspaper industry -- as exercises in public service, you are sadly mistaken. If not out-and-out naive.

Newspapers have to make a profit in an era when people don't like to read the newspaper. Network (and cable) news operations have been expected to pay their own way for a generation now.

The news business has become just that -- pure business. Capitalism, uncut. News is just another commodity to be sold -- just like toothpaste, beer or cigarettes. To sell the news, you need some sizzle . . . some sex . . . some existential conflict.

You need a story arc. When it comes to Louisiana hurricanes, the story arc centers on New Orleans. Dysfunctional New Orleans.

Forgotten New Orleans. Violent New Orleans. Wronged-by-the-feds New Orleans. Drowned New Orleans. Phoenixlike New Orleans.

And for the last week, it has been Will Phoenixlike New Orleans Get Drowned?

As we all now know, nobody drowned . . . and nobody in government really screwed the pooch this time. This seriously screws up the story arc. It deprives our news marketers of the kind of sizzle they need to sell their product.

Faced with this, the "Mad Men" of American journalism have cut bait. Deprived of a second chance to be the heroes of their own reality-TV show -- Anderson Cooper's Death Storm 2008: Wretches in the Bull's-Eye in Post-Apocalyptic New Orleans -- the networks and the other corporate journalists have done their "dodged a bullet" stories and gone home.

Never mind what the bullet actually hit.

Meanwhile, places like Houma and Baton Rouge suffer unsexily and unnoticed. Here's a thought experiment for you: If a swath of a small, poor Southern state gets blown to hell and back but no one sees it . . . is Sarah Palin the matriarch of the Anchorage Hillbillies, or the savior of the GOP? You Decide.

the infotainment industry creates out of whole cloth are always more interesting than the hillbillies cleaning up after a natural disaster. And you are hillbillies, you know. Hillbillies from Flyover Country.

Even when your neck of the woods hasn't that many hills to speak of.

Now, if you're a foreign hillbilly or if George W. Bush knocked that pin oak onto your house, call Geraldo Rivera: Warrior Journalist right away. Because it's all about the story arc, and we can't have the "news" jumping the shark.

That's what it all boils down to in a society where everybody is expendable, and everybody else is a commodity available for trade to other commodities in a consumerist society. Your misery isn't news in itself.

Your misery is newsworthy only if it has entertainment value to consumers, who in turn can be sold to advertisers. If you don't believe me, Google some audio or video of news programs and political coverage from a generation or two ago. Compare and contrast to what you get today on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News or MSNBC.

Suffering stinks. And suffering amid the total indifference of others is exponentially worse.

IN THAT LIGHT, what Baton Rouge needs to do is to suffer according to the mainstream media's preconceived story arc. Facts on the ground are irrelevant if they don't match the story outlined in advance by producers in New York.

For instance, have Kip Holden -- the mayor-president of East Baton Rouge Parish -- act crazy. Crazy as a loon. Blame somebody for something . . . anything. Hire some looters.

Remember, it's the story. Not the news.

And that's the way it is -- Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008.

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