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07/29/2005 Archived Entry: "Only people just like us matter"

ONLY PEOPLE JUST LIKE US MATTER. No, that's not what I think. But that seemed to be the unspoken message of a documentary I watched last night.

First, some background. I haven't watched television in 11 years, except for an occasional bit caught in a motel room while traveling. Other than a general impression of how things have changed (everything on TV, it seems, is now conveyed through rapidly flashing images, jerky hand-held cameras, and sound blips that make the sound bites of a decade ago seem like leisurely perorations), TV and I have been in separate universes, except where we occasionally connect via DVD.

That's how we connected last night. The documentary, "Tsunami: Wave of Destruction," which I rented from Netflix, turned out to be an ABC News quicky, apparently compiled from on-scene reports made in the first few weeks after the December 26 Indian Ocean catastrophe. It wasn't, I think, terribly different than documentaries from the 80s or 90s. What differed was my perception, having been away from such things for so long. What struck me repeatedly was how absolutely jingoistic and focused on appearances the reporting was. To wit:

Some of this is easily explicable. If you're a journalist tromping around in a devastated foreign land, naturally you're going to be drawn to people who look like you. There were a lot of American and European tourists who became victims of the tsunami. Of course it's easier to interview somebody who speaks English than somebody who speaks a language you might never even have heard of. Of course your audience is going to identify more with people they perceive to be like them (although I wonder how well all the millions of "ethnic-Americans identified with all those pale-skinned blonds).

But other things are less explicable. Why, if you run out of English-speaking interview subjects, should you turn next to blond Europeans when they aren't the ones who bore the brunt of the catastrophe? And why interview only "attractive" people?

Okay, I know the answer to that last question: "Because it's television." But that's not good enough. That might be the answer we consider inevitable. But should it be the answer that's acceptible?

Explicable or inexplicable, the overall result was a bizarre (to anybody who hasn't been steeped in this stuff) distortion of reality. An impression far from truth.

That impression was that only "our kind" matter. That American tourists suffered worse than little brown-skinned foreigners. That in the aftermath of disaster, little brown-skinned folk are incapable of taking the slightest action to care for themselves or each other. (Thank heaven for those European tourists, because otherwise nobody would bury the dead.)

I accept that an American TV audience is going to identify more with this sort of American/European depiction. That's natural, if self-centered. What I found harder to accept was the overwhelming (and I suspect unintentionally propagandistic) impression that the residents of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and the rest of the disaster zone were no more than background players -- extras -- walk-ons -- in their own world. In the minds of ABC newsies, they are not people who matter.

I don't think this is a change in how U.S. news covers world disasters. I think I'm just more aware of it now, having been away from it for 11 years. Half the people reading this are probably saying, "So &^%$#ing what? You just noticed? That's simply the way it is."

But I also strongly suspect that a lifetime of this sort of conditioning is part of what enables the U.S. to go waltzing off to "fix" Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia -- or wherever -- with the full, cheering support of ignorant folk in TV Land.

After all, everybody knows that those people (meaning all non-European foreigners) can't take care of their own business. So somebody tall and strapping and preferably blond (and definitely with a full set of healthy, gleaming teeth) has to do it for them. And since we're such heroes, how unreasonable with the little brown folk reject our "kindness."

Posted by Claire @ 09:43 AM CST

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