Hurricane Katrina and Cultural Suicide at the CBC
Date: Wednesday, September 07 2005
Topic: Culture and the Media
The following was submitted via email.
Cultural Suicide at the CBC
by Douglas Ord
On Saturday September 3rd 2005, the Homeland Security Secretary of the United States Michael Chertoff called Hurricane Katrina "the worst catastrophe or set of catastrophes that I’m aware of in the history of the country." There are, of course, aboriginal people who would disagree. But by most other standards, Katrina has been pretty bad. And the CBC, as the Canadian public broadcaster that boasts the motto "Trusted, Connected, Canadian," wasn’t there. At all.
Chertoff also said that "this set of catastrophes has broken any mould in terms of how to deal with any kind of weather catastrophe," with destruction that "is breathtaking and horrifying." While it was by then in Chertoff’s interest to make the disaster sound as convulsive as possible in order to keep his job, these words also had the ring of truth. CBC Newsworld, however, at the moment he was speaking, was showing an old episode of Antiques Road Show, with an unrelated voiceover from VoicePrint Canada of an article by Robert Fulford in the National Post. "This country believes in equalization if it believes in anything," intoned the monotonous voice that was reading the article for the stated benefit of "blind and vision-impaired Canadians," while two people onscreen carefully examined a piece of porcelain.
Back on CNN, Chertoff was calling the hurricane and the subsequent collapse of levees in New Orleans "an ultra-catastrophe," and saying that "I can’t think of another incident, including the Tsunami, that has had a two-part effect like this." The rescue effort, he said, was "like trying to deal with the Tsunami while the water was still there... The planners were confronted with a second wave that they hadn’t planned for." This claim that collapse of the levees was not foreseen has since been challenged at CNN, in various newspapers, and even on the major American TV networks. Not at the CBC, though, which hasn’t had occasion even to report the claim itself, or for that matter the hurricane that prompted it.
So extreme has the dissonance become that -- whether Chertoff in his specifics was accurate or not -- maybe the CBC’s senior management should give some thought as to how the statement about "a second wave that they hadn’t planned for" could also apply to them.
Obviously, in opting to lock out the CBC’s entire production and journalistic staff in the middle of August, CBC management was betting that the usual late-August news trough would not produce any events of such magnitude that the network would really be missed before the start of hockey season. This would, the logic seemed to be, put the screws on the Canadian Media Guild and its members who were receiving $240 a week strike pay, and who would be quietly forced to accept what the Guild claims would be less secure working conditions in the future. But this strategy -- if it existed -- has been overtaken and derailed by events, so that the CBC, as a credible news-gathering organization operating in the Canadian public interest, is rapidly slipping not only into irrelevance, but into extreme embarrassment, and maybe even irrecoverability.
Television is a medium that operates, especially in conveying news, through the illusion of intimacy. Viewers come to trust the voices and the talking heads that they see onscreen, and to look to them for reassurance and a sense of the orderliness of the news even on a daily basis, never mind in times of disaster. And with Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent events that prompted George W. Bush to say on September 2nd that "it is as if the whole Gulf Coast was obliterated by the worst weapon we could imagine," those reassuring faces have mostly been American on CNN.
Only weeks before the storm, Wolf Blitzer, with almost uncanny prescience, set up what he called The Situation Room: a multi-screen, multi-feed nerve centre capable of processing and broadcasting enormous amounts of raw data for three hours every afternoon. If he had known that Katrina was in the works, he could not have done a better job of preparing for it.
The CBC, turned in on its own preoccupations, did just the opposite.
"We’re getting a lot of e-mails from Canadians," Blitzer said to his colleague Jack Cafferty shortly before the hurricane hit. He even cleverly made a point – as the CBC itself would have tended to do in such a situation – of mentioning Saskatoon among the cities of origin.
"A lot of e-mails," Cafferty emphasized.
Just possibly, this was because Canadians accustomed to including NewsWorld in their cable-based menu no longer had it as an option for news, any more than they had familiar CBC presenters to turn to for interpretation. And they certainly weren’t going to find the level of analysis they were used to, including from the CBC, on CTV. So that when Katrina hit on August 29th, exactly two weeks after the start of the CBC lockout, it’s just possible that many intelligent Canadians were already looking to CNN for their main source of breaking news. And given the extent to which natural disaster always lurks as a primordial fear in the Canadian imagination, many more likely turned to CNN in the wake of Katrina, when the extent of the destruction began to clarify. With the result that, just possibly, in that week of extreme and unfolding crisis, when the CBC was completely silent, the terms of moment-to-moment trust that TV can foster, and that TV networks try hard to cultivate, underwent a transfer that will not be easily reversible.
The CNN news anchors are becoming very good at what they do. And amid both the fury of Katrina and the CBC lockout, they made sure they were present to the disaster in a way that the journalists and news anchors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation could not be.
There was no Canadian voice at the CBC saying, in a Canadian sort of way, just how much of a catastrophe had swallowed one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the United States.
No Canadian reporter, to provide a bit more depth, a slightly quirkier angle on the situation than the Americans were giving to one another. And that maybe some brighter Americans were also accustomed to getting from the CBC, because broadcasting is now a cable-and-satellite global phenomenon.
Except Americans of all levels of intelligence and sensibility were undoubtedly both horrified and – in that TV sort of way -- captivated by what was happening in New Orleans, and along the Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines, in the Deep South.
This is a story of such remarkable and resonant capacity that both Canadians and Americans deserved to hear about it from a perspective slightly different than CNN’s. With the terms of that difference defined, in some sense, by the terms of difference between Canada and the United States.
But the CBC wasn’t there. And any American turning to Newsworld during this period was likely appalled and maybe even angered by what he or she saw. No expression of sympathy or compassion from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in regard to this greatest of American natural disasters. Not even any direct reportage. Just an offensively cynical hodge-podge in which BBC-broadcast video of desperate Americans could be shown with a VoicePrint Canada soundtrack in which a woman’s voice said "I vividly recall my memories of the smell of fresh scones..."
This made a cynical mockery of everything: not only the scale of the catastrophe, but the intentions of the BBC’s own reporters, and even the intentions of both the VoicePrint reader and the writer of the article being read.
Meanwhile, Wolf Blitzer was there. As were also an entire cast of CNN news personalities, each one of whom seems to have been groomed to appeal to multiple target sectors. But each one of whom was also making a point of emotionally bonding with viewers in this time frame of extreme catastrophe, doing their jobs while also registering on their faces that this was, for the United States of America, and maybe even for North America, a disaster of unprecedented horror.
If Canadians hadn’t encountered Miles and Soledad O’Brien, Darren Kagan, and Lou Dobbs before Katrina and the CBC lockout, many of them likely did in the week of August 31st, when, ironically, they saw many of these anchors at their sharpest. Even Kyra Phillips, in the Live From afternoon slot, has become a both tougher and smarter since April 2003, when she asked Ali Ismael Abbas’ doctor whether little armless Ali had been told about Operation Iraqi Freedom, whether he understood it, after an American bomb had fried his arms to cinders and killed his entire family.
But almost as prescient as Wolf Blitzer at this point was Anderson Cooper, who in the hurricane season of 2004, if not earlier, had begun to venture forth into the storms, holding onto anything that was nailed down in order to report by being there on their terrifying power. He was even on the ground very early for Katrina. And if perhaps he was ordered to safety when the storm became catastrophic, he popped up again quickly in Biloxi Mississippi to help look for survivors between his broadcasts.
Notably absent from all of this, however, was the comforting voice of CBC Canada, Peter Mansbridge. As well as the voices of every last one of the CBC reporters to whose skills Canadians might have expected to look in a time of crisis.
Instead, it was CNN’s Jean Meserve whom Canadians heard break down in sobs the first day of the flooding, as she made her way through the ruined city with her technicians, helping rescue stranded people. Just as it was also Jean Meserve who would later say, when she had recovered her composure "Those of us coming out who saw what was going on, we compared it to Baghdad, we compared it to the Tsunami, we compared it to the floods in Bangladesh."
CBC reporters, meanwhile, if they were doing any reporting at all, were talking in quaint little blogs about their experiences walking around the CBC headquarters in whatever city they worked. Or bemoaning the nastiness of CBC management who had locked them out. Or speculating about how soon the Dispute might be resolved, so they could get back to work.
What they did not seem to realize was that without the prestige, the material resources, and the centralized broadcasting clout of the CBC, theirs were just a few more blogs among hundreds of thousands, spread out over the level global playing field of the internet. And why would anyone, apart perhaps from other locked out CBC employees, read such blogs, when they could just as easily be reading blogs from articulate people in the actual flood zone of a major disaster when they wanted first-hand information. Or even more easily watching CNN, whose standing was only advanced still further by the fact that, amazingly, none of the other major American networks was carrying anything more than minimum coverage of the hurricane and flood, with NBC, CBS, and ABC keeping their normal broadcast schedules, at least on the regional feeds into Canada. While CNN was non-stop, 24-hour coverage of the hurricane and flood. Including in Canada.
Meanwhile, making American TV even more intense, bizarre and interesting during this period of total retreat into silence by the CBC, was the start of the US Open Tennis Championships on Monday August 29th: the very day that Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. So that even as a profligately expanding giant water blossom -- or maybe turd blossom -- was starting to engulf New Orleans with the collapse of two major levees, the demi-gods of the tennis world were beginning their relentless process of competitively narrowed focus in Flushing Meadows New York, on neatly swept and contained little courts that were conceptually about as far away as could be imagined from the formless stinking sludge which was engulfing one of the oldest and most elegant cities in North America.
What this meant, of course, was that each time CNN went to commercial – or "took a break," as the announcers preferred to put it, as though they too were tennis players battling through each game, thereby earning the right to swig unscrutinized from a water bottle -- a simple, if slightly guilty flick of the remote control could bring up Maria Sharapova, or Roger Federer, or Venus Williams, or Andy Roddick, or Kim Clisters, or Rafael Nadal, or any of a number of remarkable specimens of human athlete, all gathered at Flushing Meadows to compete in the last and most lucrative of the year’s four Grand Slams.
No one from the CBC there either. And not even any Canadians, except maybe for Daniel Nestor, labouring gamely in the obscurity of the rarely if ever televised Men’s Doubles.
So on the fifteenth day of the CBC lockout, and the first day of the third week, two visually compelling US-based events got under way, one predicted and scheduled in New York City, and the other unpredicted and unscheduled in New Orleans. But both aligned so as to emphasize the complex world-historical spectacle of the United States of America. And not so much as a single CBC reporter at either of them.
At the very least, the TV-fostered sense of intimacy and trust in a time of crisis has, during the CBC lockout and after the fury of Katrina, likely shifted for many thoughtful Canadians to the increasingly familiar faces at CNN, as an American network, and to the dynamics of American television, whose intensity seemed both keyed to and remotely the equal of a transformative event in North American history: the functional destruction of a major city, on a scale even greater than that of September 11th 2001.
The CBC reporting staff, meanwhile, will go back on air – or presumably go back on air at some point -- without direct experience of events that have changed not only the United States but possibly the dynamics of North America, given not least the clear vulnerability of oil platforms in the Gulf, and the ripple effect of human displacement which by Labour Day had reached as far as Denver, St. Louis, and Chicago.
The CBC will also be playing desperate catch-up, trying to restore the credibility of the network as a respectable news-gathering and news-interpreting organization, rather than one whose internal preoccupations trumped the right of Canadian taxpayers to receive a taxpayer-funded perspective on a North American "ultra-catastrophe."
Restoring such credibility would be a big job even without a hurricane. But CBC managers seem to have been making a point of trying actively to sabotage the credibility of CBC Newsworld, and the CBC itself as connected to news, by making a mockery both of the seriousness of events taking place in real time, and of such acquired content as the BBC news. For they have not just presented a neutral or slowed-down version of Newsworld during the lockout. Instead they’ve presented and at the time of this writing continue to present the same uncoordinated goulash of BBC news reports, old documentaries, and reruns of The Antiques Road Show with unrelated audio voice-overs by the volunteer readers of VoicePrint Canada. This has perhaps done great things for public awareness of VoicePrint Canada. But in this case, its mandate of providing the news to "blind and vision-impaired Canadians" has taken on an irony – and a figurative accuracy – of awesome proportions.
Examples are legion, in suggesting the general sense of absurdity and dissociation that in early September 2005 was being conveyed, from moment to moment, by CBC Newsworld. But here are a couple of more, besides the combination of Robert Fulford and The Antiques Road Show that went so well with Michael Chertoff’s news conference on CNN, which itself was juxtaposed in split screen with flooding in New Orleans.
On August 31st, as the Gulf Coast lay in ruins and New Orleans was flooding, Newsworld ran a BBC News report that showed footage of the same day’s bridge collapse in Baghdad that had killed nearly a thousand Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims.
What was the voice-over, as the screen showed the bodies of victims and their sobbing relatives? "Golf ball getting million dollar refit," said the reader from VoicePrint Canada.
Or what about Friday September 2nd, when Newsworld carried BBC footage of one of the July 7th London bombers giving his pre-attack "martyrdom" message? The words that seemed actually to be coming out of his mouth in that case were from an internet-based home business commercial, that continued even as the onscreen image changed to the face of a woman who had been blown to pieces in the explosion at Edgeware Station.
This was in very bad taste.
And the list could go on and on.
BBC footage of the first anniversary memorial service at Beslan in Russia, for example, with a sound-track of a female voice reading "The floors were cherry-stained to match those in the main house."
Or other BBC footage of police closing in on a sniper in New Orleans, armed and hair-trigger tense like American troops in the streets of Baghdad. But with a male voice saying "It’s an inconvenience to employees but I wouldn’t call it a catastrophe."
Or perhaps most appropriately under the circumstances, a Canadian documentary showing dwarves at a track meet, while the VoicePrint sound-track declared "What you’ll get is less sperm production. Basically, they’ll just be a little bit floppy."
TV can be strange enough in terms of its everyday sequential juxtapositions, whether of serious news items with commercials, or of channel with channel via the remote control. But even with jump-cuts like these, there tends to be some coordination between sound and the image.
Watching CBC Newsworld, by contrast, has become an exercise in aggressively disintegrative dissociation.
An unwanted collusion in casual cynicism.
And a very big, bad joke.
On Saturday September 3rd, a flushed Prime Minister Paul Martin was shown on CTV saying, "I can tell you that we are pulling out all the stops." He was speaking about Canadian government efforts to send aid to the Gulf Coast area hit by Hurricane Katrina.
But in the context of the CBC shutdown, this momentarily sounded as though he might also be "pulling out all the stops" in terms of the continental south-to-north upflow of information. Because isn’t the CBC’s mandate to explore and cultivate a distinctively Canadian perspective on the world? And wouldn’t a prime minister who cared about both the mandate and the perspective likewise be "pulling out all the stops" in trying to resolve the CBC lockout? So that an organization which has both served and helped construct terms for the Canadian public interest for over sixty years does not become an irredeemable and unsalvageable laughing stock? And so that Canada itself, as an entity in crucial media space might be restored to existence?
Or maybe it’s now too late, in that a crucial moment of what should have been obligatory professional engagement has now been missed, and the CBC has irreversibly lost credibility.
How many times, after all, can an interested viewer turn to CBC Newsworld hoping to get some perspective on a major disaster, only to be greeted with another out-of-sync prompt to cynical laughter, that even while spontaneous is highly inappropriate, and in retrospect just depressing?
And how long, in consequence, before such people start to feel that so much as even turning to CBC isn’t making them feel very good about their own sense of humanity and compassion?
And how long, thirdly, before they start to feel also that partisans on both sides at the CBC have irredeemably put their own private squabbles above both the public interest, and the magnitude of engulfing events?
Maybe this time the CBC has REALLY blown it.
Douglas Ord’s most recent book is The National Gallery of Canada, Ideas Art Architecture (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), the first critical history of Canada’s major art institution. He worked on this 500-page book for eight years, on approximately $35,000 total funding, and his royalties have been less than $1,000. He is not independently wealthy, quite the opposite, but rather did the book as he has done this article because he cared. The question of whether he should continue to care is becoming problematical.
Douglas Ord also runs the widely read non-profit website Lear’s Shadow ( http://home.eol.ca/~dord ) and can be reached at email@example.com
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on September 7, 2005]