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January 22, 2010

Why and How I Lost It Yesterday (Over CNN “Getting Off” On a Haitian Victim Rescue)

I confess. I lost it yesterday.

If you saw my post (Please Stop, Anderson. Just STOP), I appealed for readers to contact CNN and use the Twitterverse to complain about Anderson Cooper’s visual exploitation of the Haitian people.

Over the course of the day, I heard from several visually-savvy friends who empathized with my need to vent. At the same time, however, several also wrote some variation of this:

While I applaud your effort, I am curious about why. I haven’t lived with a TV for about 8 years so I catch CNN/ cable news pretty infrequently. … So, I’d like to make an appeal for those of us who don’t tune in to CNN: What exactly is the problem? Is Cooper emblematic of contemporary Journalism? Or, has he just gone too too far?

Fair enough. (And yes, too far.)

Without delving into what upset(s) me about the split screen shots I led yesterday’s post with, let me explain the next four screen grabs and describe what happens in Tuesday’s CNN Haiti rescue video so you’ll see what set me off.

****** ********* ******

Anderson-Rescue-7a.jpg

Anderson Cooper sets up the piece by saying there’s a woman who was trapped alive in the rubble near the national cathedral almost a week after the earthquake. Meanwhile Rick Sanchez, the anchor, is bubbling over the fact he got a text message, then a phone call from the son of the trapped women, who told the anchor that his mother had gone to the cathedral before the earthquake.

Anderson Rescue 6.jpg

They then offer up the most callous still image of the woman lying on the ground — the woman looking to be crying — someone aiming a video camera at her while the woman lies on the ground like she’s an item at a garage sale.

All the while, Sanchez is rattling on about how special it is that CNN could actually produce images of the self-same women in the flesh — the two men going on to marvel how a Cooper report several days before could have actually spawned the text message and the phone call to Sanchez from the woman’s son.

I mean, how wonderful that these bones could be such a source of amusement — as well as confirmation of the power of Cooper’s reach.

At that point, the clip segues to several minutes of video in which the woman is produced from the rubble.

Anderson-Rescue-2a.jpg

What makes the video offensive at that point is that, in documenting their human souvenir, the CNN cameras happen to also document the other video cameras trained on the woman. Once they pull her out, the woman, in shock and in obvious pain — looking like a human cadaver laying upon a rickety plywood plank — seems to solely exist as a media object to visually linger over and feast on.

There are at least two video cameras we’re privy to in the clip, likely three. There is the one or two above left, there there is one that comes in from the right, as well as the one filming what we are watching.

Anderson-Rescue-8a.jpg

What is particularly galling, though, if it hasn’t been exploitive enough already, is the last twenty seconds or so.

Anderson Cooper Rescue Story 2.jpg

Anderson Cooper Rescue Story 4.jpg

At that point, the cameras (one person with a still camera) creep closer, then– with the woman writhing, the flimsy covering flying off her, her legs split spread eagle — one of the cameramen sticks the camera right in the woman’s face — also making it difficult for one of the rescue workers to move around him — while she finally gets carted away.

I’d like to step back about 40 seconds, though, and pick up with Sanchez cutting away from Cooper. At that point, Sanchez commands:

Fill the frame with that picture that’s coming in for the first time, Rog.”

Anderson Cooper Rescue Story 1.jp.jpg

Coincident with the screen shot above, the woman fills the entire screen and Sanchez gawks:

… Get me off of here! … Look at this story! … That’s the story that Anderson first brought to you [several days ago]…”

Excited about the blown up version of this woman in agony, notice Sanchez refers to her, not as a human being, but as a “story.” She’s not a person, she’s CNN’s object. Their object of curiosity. Their slab of infotainment. Then, let’s also not overlook the gender dynamics. The way Sanchez refers to this woman is not unlike how a jerk in a bar would refer to a woman as “it” or “that.” And topping it off, Sanchez as good as announces how she, or it, gets him off!

The Sanchez quote completely aside, however, this clip, from beginning to end, is classic disaster porn.

…So maybe I lost it yesterday. But if you find this more thorough description validates my original outrage, I recommend, again, that you go to yesterday’s post, complain to CNN, and then blog it or tweet it. (I added an update.)

  • tinwoman

    Why are you surprised? This is the circus part of the bread and circuses of the 21st century.
    Wait until Rome (Washington) falls. They’ll get some great pictures!

  • tinwoman

    News today states that about half a million survivors will be relocated to camps around the city.
    Do we take this to mean that there are only half a million able bodied people left from a city of almost 2 million?
    If this is so, then deaths from the quake, including Port au Prince and surrounding towns, could easily surpass a million people (assuming the number going to camps does not include the wounded).
    Funny that CNN for all its wallowing in this tragedy has not seen fit to mention this. In fact, they haven’t seen fit to mention any death toll; a few days ago people just stopped talking about it.
    Meantime our army holds up all supplies at the airport in the name of “security”. 20,000 people dying a day for lack of these same supplies. The U.S. general stands in front of crates of bottled water and says he’d love to distribute it, but nobody “with clearance” has come to get it…huh?
    Yet the world pretends it cares….going to be fun to watch Madonna wiggling it today for the special “Hope for Haiti” concert. Hope indeed.
    I’m ready to lose it, too, Michael, if it’s any comfort.

  • Rewind

    Some few thoughts…
    1. feasting. yes, this is a form of feasting. Eat the poor?
    2. Kudos to the USA for helping Haiti get rid of ‘Big Government’. This must be a Teabagger’s Paradise! The reason we are unlikely to see this sort of coverage of natural disasters in other societies is that, unlike Haiti, other places have functioning governments to respond. (Scratch Nawlins – think California earthquakes).
    3. Will there be equally ample resources devoted by journalists and their producers to digging into why the twice elected President Aristide was overthrown by thugs? Who might have trained and supported the thugs? Were Aristide’s governments less legitimate than, say, that of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan?
    4. Seems like someone sure made a pact with the devil, but it probably wasn’t the poor lady in the rubble of the cathedral or the people singing hymns in the streets of Port Au Prince.

  • http://www.prisonphotography.wordpress.com Pete Brook

    Michael. You have become for me, personally, a trusted source for media interpretation. I too received the emails that were sent in reply to your original appeal.
    I a) echoed your appeal and b) trusted, as such, that your original gut instinct was correct.
    I don’t own a TV, so possibly it was foolish for me to back you unequivocally, but that said, you have – with merit – provided a fuller explanation of your discontent.
    I have a problem with the way the Haiti earthquake has been covered with particular reference to “looters” (a repeat of Katrina cynicism) and also the means by which the escaped prison population has been generically referred to as an incorrigible dangerous element. As Andy Kershaw noted (http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andy-kershaw-stop-treating-these-people-like-savages-1874218.html) the media presumptions made about the Haitian prisoners (political, violent, “unfortunates”) and the reaction to such types cannot be given credence at such an early period in the unfolding of events.
    I have published publicly that (nearly all) narratives of the Haiti earthquake will need to be revised and that includes yours and mine. However, I think we should be understood for speaking our immediate reactions to events and coverage.
    Having watched the footage , I’d like to add two more things:
    1) Perhaps, Anderson Cooper himself shouldn’t be faulted for clumsy reporting. It seems like the anchor back in the studio was more celebratory of “the story”. Anderson actually lowers his voice during the rescue.
    and 2) Can we know for sure that that all three cameras were CNN? It seems one of them definitely was.
    Ultimately, major networks (which rely on these type of “feel good” stories) have a responsibility to present them as fact and not as ratings winners.
    Maybe we all point to the major networks as the dominant reporters and subject them to larger scrutiny and criticism. As a practice this is vital and as a dialogue this should continue.
    I expect in time we’ll here the inside reactions of those employed for the major networks in Haiti and then build a constructive dialogue of how and why certain methods are employed for reporting.
    Keep your eye keen.
    Pete

  • http://profile.typepad.com/michaeldg Michaeldg

    I guess the question is where exactly is the line? If we decry the indifference that the world has toward epic tragedies (think the Congo, Darfur), then the media is doing humanity a service by getting them emotionally involved with the suffering of others- which has resulted in an outpouring of support by governments and contributions by individuals. However, if this is just a giant media company producing another compelling reality TV show, with victims serving as heart-rending props, then it is true exploitation.
    This whole discussion hits home as I was with a group of physicians and students trying to provide basic medical care to Haitian refugees and poor Dominicans in the Puerto Plata area near the Haitian/Dominican border just one week before the earthquake. During the trip I took pictures of our work, our patients and the conditions they lived in and made a short movie to help with fund raising for the group I was working with ( see:http://gallery.me.com/michaeldg#100078).
    I’m having a hard time finding the line between what I did- use images and stories of people in desperate need to raise awareness and funds here in the U.S. and what CNN has been doing. We are a small group of family doctors and students working for a fledgling NGO, they are a giant media corporation- is there a difference between their efforts and mine? Where is the line?

  • MoTeres uh

    between victimism and volunteerization (?)

  • jtfromBC

    Great work Michael,
    Is it to early to consider what the future holds for the present victims;
    Haitian and ***international officials***, aware that these camps may become permanent, are hotly debating locations. In Phase 2 of the plan, private companies would be contracted to build apartment complexes and homes with the help of residents living in the tents.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/world/americas/22haiti.html?pagewanted=1&hp
    Here we go again;
    The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
    http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050502/klein

  • Jonathan

    I’ve had the same reaction and stopped watching all televised media and most on-line reporting of this event from the beginning. The sight of so many reporters/videographers/photographers salivating at a chance to produce disaster stories/images has been unbearable.
    I get it . . . it’s bad, really bad, worse than you can imagine, don’t believe me? here’s some pictures to prove it, I told you so . . . I’ve had enough.
    It’s all part of the general debasement of the reporting industry. It’s so cranked up to search for/provide “meaningful” coverage of an event that it’s dehumanizing it’s subjects.

  • http://www.ninaberman.com Nina

    Rather than all the mindless chatter about the text messages and phone calls, I would have liked to have heard an explanation about the tremendous will it must take for a person to stay alive for 7 days without food or water.
    This would have helped make the story about the survivor. As it stands, it’s about the communicators, the rescuers, and of course, the dog.
    The camerman knows instinctively that the survivor is who is important. The “money” shot as it is called in journalism speak. And so there is the constant zooming in and out, trying to bring the person into prominence. But since the woman is nearly dead,
    the zoom in and out, feels aggressive, like the camera is prodding. The other cameras in the frame, both still and video, must be operating under a literal interpretation of the Robert Capa adage “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”
    In the process they seem like clumsy vultures.
    Finally, the anchor’s description of the survivor as the story is revealing and offensive in context, but not unusual in journalistic speak.
    For something completely different, and an example of what journalism can be, see http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/maggie-steber/

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    I am saddened by how much attention we are paying to Haiti now vs. how little we paid it before.
    I miss the days when the news told us what was going on in the world before things were a disaster, a scandal, or whatever. I like to be informed — not horrified, terrified, scandalized, or entertained. So I rarely watch television news at all.

  • Ofelia

    Clumsy vultures, indeed
    Thanks for the link to Maggie’s work

  • tardigrade

    I do believe Susan Sontag (On Photography, 1977) was right – especially about our 24/7 news networks. Not only do they feel they own the privileged relationship with ‘reality’ but they feel justified and immune to scorn in their ability to take advantage for their, ‘art’.

  • tinwoman

    Please Michael, post the photos of the “policemen” who shot to death innocent men carrying bags of rice today. People need to see what these beefy, armed-to-the-teeth goons look like before they can fully understand the extent to which Haitians are being mistreated for simply appearing to forage to food. How in the world did such a poor country get money to buy riot gear, machine guns, and brand new uniforms and SUVs for its “police force”? Where did the money come from? And why are they shooting dead people for carrying food, in this environment??/

  • thebewilderness

    With all the comparisons the corporate media talkers have made with Hurricane Katrina they seem to have left an important one out.
    I thought that the thing that prevented the press from seeming like vultures picking bones in NOLA was that they rendered what little aid they could. You didn’t see them struggling with each other for a shot like paparatzi at a celeb stake out.

  • timolo

    “Could be worse”
    Thats all it says to me.

  • mileslarboy

    Rick Sanchez is THE WORST of the CNN personality-driven anchors … and that’s saying a LOT. Of course, that means that they just gave him his own “new” show!!! The folks out there LOVE HIM … almost as much as he loves himself (check him out always checking himself out on his monitor). He’s unwatchable and so full of himself it is truly remarkable. So I quit watching him.

  • http://www.myleftwing.com Maryscott O’Connor

    Thank you.

  • http://www.sammyringer.com Sammy Ringer

    Perhaps as a small antidote to your (justifiable) anger, here is a story from two Australians covering the tragedy (Aust Broadcasting Comm, of course)
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/01/25/2800368.htm
    I found it refreshingly honest and touching – and the photo used is purposefully low-key.

  • http://www.focusreframed.com Bob Parker

    Anderson also does a fine job of patronizing young children who were rescued. It seems he actually expects them to know who he is, as if he is someone really special, and that he is the star attraction, despite the real story being a land, government, and a people coming apart. Very surreal. Fellini and Pasolini couldn’t have done a better job of scripting this manner of coverage.

  • Kat Meer

    Anderson Cooper is remarkable, as is Zoriah Miller. Everyone that is critical of these two individuals fall under the same category: ignorant. This is why wars still occur, history never changes, religion holds extreme spells over people, and evolution cannot take place. It makes me sad and embarrassed to be part of the human race….it proves that humans are inferior in the kingdom of creatures. If the world was filled with Andersons and Zoriahs the world could finally heal.

  • Al

    Shame on everyone except Kat!!!! Beautifully said my friend, I concur.

  • SS

    This is kind of ridiculous. This is not sensational news reporting. Yes, the last shots are a bit much, but the thing is OF COURSE this is what news stations are going to be showing, because this kind of fluff is the only thing that keeps viewers nowadays interested. This completely reflects my personal opinion that quite recently, the average person sitting at home watching television has a significantly lower attention span than years before. Anderson Cooper said himself on his own blog, that the people don’t want to see the same stories appear over and over again, because they get bored of watching the same thing REGARDLESS if what they are seeing IS STILL OCCURRING. Therefore, CNN and other news stations HAVE to keep “interesting” stories such as this on air, to make sure the viewer continues to view!! It’s pretty simple honestly! Would you rather have Anderson back home in New York City, reporting on local and meaningless politics, while this disaster is still occurring and there are people still trapped in rubble who DESERVE to have their stories told too? This is a small price to pay when considering the amount of exposure and aid these people are receiving because of anchors like Anderson Cooper who not only show a humane approach to the disaster but also connect to audiences and do it in a meaningful way. The ends justifies the means. I would much, much, rather watch this than realize that the American people have forgotten there is still destruction abroad, because it is no longer in the news.

  • Pingback: Thinking Images v.8: Haiti’s eternal present | David Campbell

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