The horrific scenes from Haiti will have many impacts on the American audience.
First, the traditional American response of generosity to those in desperate circumstances is already underway.
Second –and this has already happened– a genuine tragedy and emergency reduces all other stories to their appropriate size, which in many instances is very, very small. Yesterday I interviewed my colleague and consumer goods recall specialist Liz McNulty about the cadmium scare that has Chuck Schumer urgently calling for new legislation. While it isn’t a good idea to allow kids to eat cadmium jewelry, McNulty pointed out, neither do we need sweeping new federal legislation on the subject or United States senators attempting to start a stampede and sow panic in the parent population. Chinese manufacturing standards are a problem that remains a problem even after Congress passed a law to address it in 2008. There are regulations and agencies in place to deal with it –methodically and rationally. Cadmium in children’s goods is not a crisis. It is a problem. And the attempt to introduce hysteria about the problem is irresponsible and reckless.
Third, we will figure out a new way to respond.
So few things really are crises, and the appearance of the real thing –mammoth, overwhelming and terrifying– underscores this vast gap between problems and genuine emergencies. What is needed in the latter situation is a suspension of the ordinary rules, and not just when it comes to an outpouring of aid, which of course the American people are in the process of reflexively and rightly sending. (See this post for four excellent, on-the-ground agencies that can help Haitians today.)
What is needed now is an airlift of wounded and battered survivors to hospitals across the United States. Last night the reporting of CNN –excellent, and Anderson Cooper et al deserve high praise for getting there and sending back the shocking video. The long lines of suffering and broken people in hallways outside of makeshift and damaged “clinics” isn’t a scandal –yet. But the American forces arriving should be loading the C-130s with the most desperately broken people and flying them everywhere in the U.S. for the basic treatment available in every emergency room in America.
It will cost a fortune, and it requires a suspension of our ordinary rules of ingress, but there is no way the country can deal with this except by exporting its wounded and importing massive amounts of resources. There really isn’t a choice here, just a question of whether or not the country will do the right thing quickly.
Over the next few days it will be interesting to watch to see how quickly the news gurus try and bend the story charts back to the U.S. The pictures are so horrible that many in the American audience must simply be turning the televisions off.
But there really isn’t any other major story that competes with this epic of suffering. The Massachusetts senate contest is of course crucial, and efforts to help Scott Brown should continue and hopefully the voting will be robust in an effort to save the health care system that may yet save tens of thousands of Haitians. Every other story is so small by comparison that news directors should recognize this and dismiss contenders as false.
What the networks could do that would be extremely useful is start the debate about opening our hospitals to the Haitians and how to do it. That would be a service that is needed right now and which the media could do and do well.