Monday, January 03, 2005

The latest death toll accorded to the tsunami is at 155,000. The number is absolutely staggering and I am certain it will rise in the days and months ahead as victims fall ill and some no longer have the strength to hang on. This is not to mention the years of rebuilding and social upheaval which will almost surely take place in the wake of the event, nor the economic issues and issues with rebuilding.

A planet away and shielded from the disaster, it's impossible to take it all in.

I was working on Wednesday with a pair of student workers who happen to be from India and happen to be siblings. I asked the older one, the sister, if any of her family was near any of the areas hit. She assured me they were not, and that her family was fine. Her brother (the baby of the family, I have come to believe) looked at me.

"What are you talking about?"
"Who died?" he asked.
"You really don't know..?"
"Know what?"
I looked at Surbhi, trying to figure out what I should say. She looked spooked, scared.
"How does he not know?" I asked.
"I don't know." And please, she didn't have to say, don't tell him.
For good or for ill, our coversation was broken up at that moment as someone else walked intot he room, but I still couldn't figure out why he didn't know, and why he wasn't supposed to know. It had been four days.

"So," my friend said to me on the phone today. He was driving back from a family cabin in New Mexico, having been out of cell phone range, having no TV, no link to the outside world. "I got here Sunday and they were saying 12,000 people."
"No," I said. "It's way worse than that."
"What is it-"
"The count was 140,000 last I checked."

And the funny thing is the way the press has been so damn slow to deal with the whole mess. The sketchiness of details is almost understandable given that communication and roads are severely damaged. But you have to guess that virtually every non-US news organization was better equipped to handle the events than US news outlets. If its not a Hollywood report or taking dictation from a press office, US journalists tend to get a bit weak in the knees. And given the US's usual level of interest in matters outside our borders (not to mention utter ignorance of geography and history, myself included) our news outlets tend to reflect that mode of thinking.

So a few days after the tsunami (which they weren't covering in great detail the first day out, if you recall...) CNN had up a big feature on a swim suit model and how this mess had affected her. "Bring it home," goes the mantra, "in a way people can understand." So use that Hollywood reporting/ morning show blather and somehow try to piece together a news story because we've forgotten how to collect facts and report them. And Americans have shown again and again how they don't liek to see poor people from overseas.

It took a few days, but they got their act together. The reporters in the field are using their "very important reporter" voice, but at least they seem to be trying. Although I've seen conflicting reports and details still seem sketchy, the local and the American press quit trying to find someone locally who has been affected by the tsunami. They seem to be trying to say "who, what, where, when and why" without trying to find something funny to say at the end of the report.

I remember that on September 12th, 2001. Stuck in a Las Vegas hotel room, watching Peter Jennings finally take a break and giving over the reigns to the local boys for what seemed to be the first time in 24 hours... and learning how the September 11th (not yet dubbed September 11th... no name yet for the horror then) was reverberating across America's Playground. But then, you were kind of left knowing goddamned nothing else was going to seem to matter a lot, so you were going to need to find a local angle on this atrocity, so it was probably best to dump the piece on the cat show.

So maybe tomorrow and the next day will be better. I certainly hope so. I hope that we don't lose interest completely in the next week. Our $35 million is only going to take us so far.

No comments: