Numb and Numb-er

In which we have to ask, yet again: "Where' s the outrage?"

Of the many images of Hurricane Katrina that endure in the mass consciousness, one of the most indelible is that of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, moved literally to tears at the destruction he witnessed in the days after the storm. His reporting from New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast was raw and urgent and absolutely right for the moment and the mood of the country. It transformed Cooper, formerly an obscure CNN field reporter, into not only an overnight celebrity, but also a representative of a media that was squarely on the side of the people, sharing in their pain and feeling their anger. In his shunning of objectivity for connectivity, Cooper became the voice and the vessel of the widespread outrage over the government’s handling of Katrina—and his impassioned indignation wrote itself into Katrina’s story as a rare moment when Americans and their media were, in many ways, one.

Well. The devastation currently upon us may be taking place on Wall Street rather than Bourbon Street, and its impact may be financial rather than physical in nature—but, all in all, much of the current situation feels familiar, even redundant. Another case of American citizens being betrayed by a government that’s supposed to act in their interest. Another case of wide-scale distress that could have been prevented had the government been more diligent in its duties. It’s deja-screw, all over again.

So, then: Where’s our Anderson? Where’s the vessel for the indignation and confusion so many Americans are feeling right now? Where’s the voice that merges anger and accountability in its treatment of the credit crisis? As Howard Kurtz asked in yesterday’s Reliable Sources, “Where is the sense of outrage in journalism that we saw after the Enron scandal and the other accounting scandals of a half dozen years ago?”

Missing in action, I’d say. Indeed, in the week since the current meltdown transpired, we’ve seen journalists express shock at Wall Street’s implosion (whoa, what just happened?). We’ve seen them express awe (wow, that just happened). We’ve seen them engage in intellectual inquiry (how did that just happen?) and explanatory exposition (here’s what just happened) and forward-looking analysis (how can we fix what just happened?) and political analysis (how does what just happened relate to the campaign?) and blame-gaming (who’s responsible for what just happened?). We’ve seen a lot of level-headed, even-handed treatment of the crisis. And, as Dean noted last week, much of that treatment has been commendable. But what we have yet to see, in that sober and balanced and occasionally noble coverage, is indignation. Anger. Outrage.

Take a piece that ran in the Media & Advertising section of today’s New York Times—“Amid Market Turmoil, Some Journalists Try to Tone Down Emotion”—which analyzes the connection between overly “emotional” reporting and market panic. The emotion in question is not, to be clear, journalists’. Rather, it’s words’. (Yep, because everyone’s favorite topic of inquiry during moments of national upheaval is semantics.) “For most of the country,” the piece begins, “the financial crises of the last few weeks have offered an education in economics. For journalists, they have been a lesson in semantics.”

A lesson in semantics? That’s what the crises have meant to reporters? “Journalists say there is a narrow gap between their duty to convey the extent of what is happening to banks and markets and causing panic,” Richard Perez-Pena writes. And, later,

Each day presents new evidence that finance companies are uniquely vulnerable to a loss of confidence among creditors, trading partners, investors or customers. As a result, rumor, speculation and fear can cripple a bank with shocking speed. That has reporters and editors, so often accused of hyperbole and sowing alarm, parsing their words with unusual care.

Which, hey—this is good stuff, overall. And the fact that the piece verges on stating the obvious (journalists should choose their words carefully? You don’t say!) is forgivable in light of the very real journalistic challenge it discusses: navigating the often fine line between reporting on financial turmoil and exacerbating it.

And yet. In the larger context of crisis, the piece’s tone—indeed, the entirety of its content—seems slightly off-base at best, hopelessly out of touch at worst. Words, words, words…is that really what journalists should be focusing on while the economy’s in a meltdown? On the one hand, sure: Words are what they do. But on the other, the focus on semantics Perez-Pena describes paints a picture of a press corps that, like the government did, misses the point. The piece depicts journalists as, above all, cool and calm and collected—so detached from the magnitude of the economy’s difficulties that they can calculate with minute precision the words they should be using to tell their tales of woe. (Deck chairs and the Titanic come to mind.) Compare that sense of semantic separation to, again, Anderson Cooper, whose anger was, among other things, a tacit admission—and even, in some ways, a celebration—of the fact that words, when in it comes to crisis reporting, aren’t always enough.

But for Perez-Pena’s journalists, it’s not merely a matter of words overcoming outrage; in his framework, those journalists don’t feel outrage in the first place.

Which is not to say that those journalists—Perez-Pena’s or their professional analogues—should lose their tempers as they tell their tales, or that audiences want their journalists to burst into tears—rhetorical or otherwise—when relating new developments of the financial meltdown. Of course not. Nor should the media be engaging in finger-pointing and blame-gaming at this point. The press is right to be looking forward rather than backward, and to be focusing, along with the government, on finding solutions…and, as they do so, to be choosing their words carefully.

It is to say, though, that a little empathy would go a long way in this case. Journalists, after all, like most Americans, must be feeling some sense of anger that the government has, in so many ways, and for so long, put corporate interests ahead of average poeple’s. They must be at least a little bit miffed that a portion of their taxes, assuming Hank Paulson gets his way, will go not toward updating the country’s infrastructure or improving its public education system, but toward bailing out mortgage companies. They must be feeling some sense of resentment at the fact that Richard Fuld, who helmed Lehman Brothers into its bankruptcy, is walking away with an estimated $65 million in severance pay. They must be just a little bit pissed off about all this. Everyone else is. So why not let that show? Why not bring a little dose of accountability journalism into their reporting? And why not bring a human element into their narratives?

It’s not often we get to say this, but mainstream reporters could take a cue, in this case, from Bill O’Reilly. On The Factor last week, the self-styled populist declared, “Every American should be furious about the economic meltdown. It’s not your fault, ladies and gentleman. Not my fault. OK? It’s the federal government’s fault.”

This is classic O’Reillian hyperbole, yes, but there’s something refreshing in its authenticity. Something, indeed, reminiscent of Cooper’s Katrina coverage: something urgent and candid and real. When the public trust has been violated, we want our news reporters to be angry about it. Just like we are.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.