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john doyle: television

The other day, as the extent of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan became clear, on CNBC, the financial news channel, host Larry Kudlow was jawing on about what it all meant. In business terms, that is. He was looking for what you might call "a silver lining." So, after a co-host said, "The markets are taking this in stride" Kudlow jabbered, "The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll, and we can be grateful for that."

Nothing goes without notice these days so Kudlow took to Twitter some hours later to say this: "I did not mean to say human toll in Japan less important than economic toll. Talking about markets. I flubbed the line. Sincere apology." Yep, that was one messed-up thing to say.

Fact is, confusion, weirdness and fear are evident all over the TV news coverage of the disaster in Japan. And there are lessons to be learned.

It's one of those stories that simultaneously bewilder the TV news organizations and galvanize viewers. (Interesting to note that in the U.S., Fox News initially took the lead in viewers as news of the disaster unfolded, and then CNN claimed a great many more viewers. You can't rely on right-wing, propagandizing pundits on the Japan story.) The viewers are horrified by the mass destruction and have a strange appetite for absorbing the most extraordinary amount of grim but dramatic footage.

Goodbye uprisings in the Arab world: Bahrain declares martial law, pro-Gadhafi forces move in on rebel strongholds. Those stories get less attention as the world watches in horrified amazement as nature wreaks a terrible onslaught on a stable, well-off society. Instead of the giddy rebels of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it's the stunned, stoic victims in Japan who draw our eyes. There is a certain wonder at the orderly, muted responses in Japan. And that's one area where television largely fails to inform. It is difficult to explain Japan, to illuminate the layer upon layer of that country's culture - the insularity, the wariness of foreigners, the imperturbable surface that hides further layers of contradictions and neuroses. I've been to Japan to cover soccer and was both spooked by the insularity and charmed by the hospitality. It sure is difficult to explain.

Where television fails in particular is in explaining how Japan has lived with the possibility of terrible disaster for centuries and has channelled its neuroses into a vast array of popular culture artifacts, especially those often-mocked Godzilla films. The core of Japanese society and culture, so resilient to change and at peace with the impermanence of civilized society, remains a mystery to us. If the matter is dissected at all, it is in newspapers and magazines, not TV.

What we get instead is, first, massive coverage of scenes of devastation. Wreckage spread as far as the horizon. We are awed by it, naturally. The back-of-the-mind fear that our own society might crumble in disaster is articulated for us, but distant. To add to the awe, one of the staples of TV coverage of such events - the miracle rescue from under piles of rubble - has been largely denied us and TV news crews. Sometimes, the devastation is so total that few miracle rescues will ensue. And that is deeply sobering. Rather than miracle rescues, television has emphasized happy stories of families reunited or lost Americans located. NBC's Ann Curry was gifted a story when she quickly found a family member unaccounted for in the disaster zone and CNN had a similar story. Plus there have been the usual clichés - CNN's finding and interviewing Americans who are helping out in Japan, the BBC doing the same with British specialists on the ground there.

Also, what we've had on TV is some terrible confusion and ignorance about nuclear power and the threat of a nuclear disaster in Japan. The other night, on CNN, Anderson Cooper simply fled the area he was in, in case there was an authentic threat of contamination. How real was that? The answer is unclear.

Thus it has become clear that TV News tends to defer to authority on the nuclear issue, as it does in most things. Contradictory statement and obfuscation might be issuing forth from the authorities in Japan and from the nuclear industry around the world. But most reporters and anchors are as ignorant as the viewing public. There has been much less rigorous analysis than there needs to be on the nuclear issue. Even MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who made a good attempt to explain a nuclear power plant in layman's terms, using a cardboard tube, couldn't get across the real and potential dangers.

And what lessons are learned so far? First, language is beggared by the visual impact of devastation. Some TV reporters need to just shut up. Second, viewers largely get the coverage they want and deserve. That's why the "happy stories" keep coming, no matter how slim they are. Third, the number of independent experts on nuclear power used for analysis on TV needs to be expanded.