This is a rant.
The American media coverage of the Bangkok tragedy was so perfunctory and inexpert as almost to be criminal. While there's some validity to the old journalism saw that "all news is local," surely a country that so obsessively measures itself against other nations should make at least some effort to get the story, to make it available, and to get it right.
If you take the items contained within the commas above as reasonable journalistic objectives, here's how the American broadcast and Internet media (that's you, HuffPost and CNN) scored:
Get the story: 20 out of a possible hundred. By and large they relied on British reportage. Even when a Red Shirt leader was shot through the head while being interviewed by a New York Times reporter, the broadcast media focused more on the reporter than on the event, because they weren't competent to put the shooting into context.
Make the story available: Pretty close to zero. (And this also applies to most U.S. print media.) There was lots of air time for Lindsay Lohan and gasbag pundits eructating about a meaningless election (a MIDTERM PRIMARY, for Christ's sake) but no precious seconds to spare for the possible downfall of our longest-lasting and most important ally in Southeast Asia, much less the people dying in the streets. Absolutely witheringly, appallingly and willfully unconscionable.
Get it Right: Zero with a bullet, but unfortunately a bullet heading down. When they had shots of people bleeding heavily, which means it made the air in keeping with the "if it bleeds, it leads" tenet of broadcast journalism, the networks and cable outlets were hopelessly clueless about what was actually happening: what all those people were doing out there behind the barricades of tires, why the Army was shooting them, how long the government had, in essence, forsworn armed confrontation before opening fire. I mean, this is not really a complicated story: it's a clash between rival groups, with the poor caught in the middle. How much time does that take?
But all those long names!!!! And, really, are we allowed to say "Bangkok" on the air? And the people -- they're all kind of . . . brown. Did Lindsay get back from France in time?
When the story of 20th-century America is finally written, assuming anyone can still write, one of the most melancholy threads will be the development of a magnificent medium that promised to bring directly to us, in pictures and sounds, the faces and voices of those caught up in tragedy and triumph all over the world. And how it did that, with some of the most unforgettable moments in American history: the cameras in the Senate chamber catching Judge Joseph Welch demanding of Joe McCarthy, "Have you no shame, sir? Have you no shame at last?" The first steps on the moon. The extraordinary Vietnam coverage that brought down a war. The fried eyes of Richard Nixon stepping down.
And then, how it was sold off, a high-priced second at a time, first to advertisers battling post-nasal drip and then to multimedia corporations that had low risk thresholds and fierce profit appetites. And how those entities drained the medium of integrity, curiosity, intelligence, and individuality until it became just another pacifier, a highly profitable pacifier, but essentially a direct link to the government-and-corporate-generated soma (to borrow a term from Huxley) that lulls us into life as good little consumers, easily fooled by politicians sitting on top of stacks of stolen money and pointing fingers at each other, by demagogues claiming that they're the ones to "take our government back," and by feel-good stories about America the Wonderful when in actual fact we have become, in part due to the miracle of television, the dumbest first-world nation on earth, narcotized into numb acceptance of our falling relevance in the world.
Put it together with a destroyed public education system, and you can see (a) why nobody cared about Thailand, since most Americans couldn't find the entire Asian continent on a map, and (b) why our interest is nil in those parts of the world that are farther away than, say, the other side of the street and/or don't have Lindsay Lohan or some other celebrity train wreck in them. And finally, you can see (c) why this country is probably at the end of its period of glory and innovation, and why, a generation from now, Americans will be looking at (maybe) China on the tube, and saying, "Didn't that used to be us?"
Tim -- Sunday