Opinion

Jack Shafer

The landslide of news

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2014 21:52 UTC

Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It’s filthy, it’s bone-crushing, and it’s suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.

The press coverage of Saturday’s landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed 24 dead and confirmed missing, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint — and continues. Today’s New York Times makes the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.

Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher — plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. — because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. “It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill,” said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. “You’ve got sewer pipes. You’ve got dirty diapers.”

Not to diminish the cataclysm and the human loss, but for all its fearful power and creepiness, the landslide isn’t much of a killer — at least not in America. According to a Wikipedia chart of major landslides worldwide since 1900, only 11 have struck the United States, including the one in Oso. When you factor out landslides propagated by exploding volcanos (Mount St. Helens), earthquake-tsunamis (Seward, Alaska, and Lituya Bay, Alaska) and hurricanes (Nelson County, Va.), the death count falls very low. Before Oso, fewer than two dozen people had died in all other major U.S. landslides, which you could count on two fingers (Gros Ventre, Wyo., and La Conchita, Calif.).

The rarity and low death counts of landslides make them no less fearsome. Like snow rollers, ice circles, supermoons, ball lightning, sun dogs, mammatus clouds, sun pillars, and other exceptional and mysterious phenomena, the landslide commands our attention and that of journalists. The loss of life — especially corpses that can’t easily be recovered or located — has given the Oso story legs that will likely carry it for weeks. There probably exists somewhere in a mathematician’s imagination a news formula that could predict how and why a story keeps rolling in the news, a topic I recently studied in my column about the alleged “over-coverage” of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a story which is still on Page One.

The jumbo coverage of Malaysia flight MH370

Jack Shafer
Mar 17, 2014 21:33 UTC

When a big story breaks, my news digestion knows no satiety. Earthquake, assassination, invasion, bank run, political campaign, celebrity court case, sport scandal or a drunk stubs his toe on the Lower East Side — I can handle anything the press swarm sends at me.

So unlike Fox News press reporter Howard Kurtz (“It’s too much with too few facts,” he said last week of the saturation reporting by his former network, CNN, about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370), I can handle any “over”-coverage the news machine chooses to throw my way. By handle, I usually mean avoid, but on a story like MH370, I desire the sort of coverage that could fill the Indian Ocean, which I did not know until last week had an average depth of 2.5 miles.

That fact was only one of the scores of news nuggets I’ve chewed and swallowed since the airliner was reported missing on March 8. While I’m aware that the flight’s fate, its back story, and repercussions will have no impact on my life, and that there aren’t enough degrees of Kevin Bacon to connect me to 95 percent of the missing passengers, I have clawed my way through stories and even stayed up at night to learn about transponders, the different kinds of radars, the stolen passport business, the number of air strips within MH370′s flight range that could have accommodated a landing, general Malaysian political incompetence, Southeast Asian geography, satellite telemetry, international relations, black boxes, the workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system, the Andaman Islands, life raft locator radios, search technologies, air navigation and more. One measure of my devotion to this story is that I even watched an oceanographer talk on Charlie Rose about the missing aircraft.

It’s an ad, ad, ad, ad world

Jack Shafer
Mar 13, 2014 20:10 UTC

The last place you’d expect to discover a map to navigate the future of the content-advertising landscape would be a book about the golden age of radio. But damn it all to hell, there it is on the concluding 12 pages of Cynthia B. Meyers’ new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio.

Not to discourage you from reading Meyers’ first 281 pages about the co-evolution of broadcasting and advertising before excavating her new media insights, but this is one of those books that demands to be read backwards — conclusion first, historical arguments and research later. In Meyers’ view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future’s corner.

The commercial Web that permeates our culture today was revolutionary because it allowed news and entertainment content to migrate from the lockdown of the radio and TV networks, as well as from print. But that migration was already in progress when the first banner ad (for AT&T) ran on Hotwire.com in late 1994. A decade before, cable had given advertisers new venues to place their TV bets, and VCRs (and later DVRs) gave viewers the power to time-shift and edit ads out of their consumption. The advent of videotape and discs further liberated audiences from advertising’s hold.

Beware the old nostalgic journalist

Jack Shafer
Mar 3, 2014 23:29 UTC

No sadder sack exists than the journalist in the twilight of his career. After decades of scrutinizing other individuals and their institutions, the soon-to-be-retired journo predictably looks inward and, if his editor indulges him, pens a heartfelt goodbye essay to his readers.

Robert G. Kaiser, former managing editor of the Washington Post, contributed such a note to his paper yesterday. To his credit, Kaiser doesn’t bawl with nostalgia for his paper’s salad days, like so many other recent writers of goodbye notes to their publications. Nor does he take aim at penny-pinching publishers and greedy chief executive officers, the standard suspect in the who-killed-the-newspaper-and-put-me-out-to-pasture sage. Nor does he slag the Web on his way out. Kaiser is too smart for that. In 1992, he wrote a persuasive memo (pdf) about the coming triumph of digital news and advertising, a memo that the Post tried and failed to translate into a business model.

Instead of giving his publication and readers a nostalgic goodbye with his final contribution — as is usually the case when a journalist departs — Kaiser opens the choke to spray a melancholic farewell to the federal city of Washington, which he’s called home for most of his 70 years. “[T]he political circus that enthralled me for so long,” he writes, has lost its spell on him. Having recently relocated to New York, Kaiser adds, “I don’t miss Washington, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”

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