The cable news networks went live with the story almost immediately.The 5.9-magnitude quake had its epicenter in Mineral, Virginia, about 40 miles to the southwest of Fredericksburg, in the central part of the state. Gone was the banal coverage of the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. It was earthquake time.
To watch the networks, you’d think a giant quake slammed DC or NYC. The networks treated the tremblor like it belonged to the metro areas, like it was their quake. Mineral, when mentioned, seemed like a by-the-way that was out of the way.
Yes, the displacement of millions of Americans from work by a natural disaster is news–but it was also the convenient news.
CNN seemed content to post Wolf Blitzer right outside their studio in DC. Another of the networks had their in-studio talent standing in front of a satellite picture of central Virginia, cobbled together from Google Maps shots, with the town of Mineral featured in the center.
But that seemed about as close to Mineral as anyone wanted to get.
Maybe I can’t blame them. After all, pundits began filling the airwaves with talk of “probable” aftershocks and worries about the nuclear power plant near Lake Anna, a few miles away from Mineral (which was safely shut down as a precaution). Talking heads began talking, too, of Hurricane Irene in the Atlantic, as though one good natural disaster deserved another, which inexplicably, inexorably linked them somehow. Things were okay now, but the situation could quickly get dire for any number of reasons, the banter suggested.
I spent the summer living in a small house on the Chancellorsville battlefield, only 25 miles from Mineral, so I know the area. It was my back yard until I moved back to northwestern Pennsylvania last weekend. In fact, my girlfriend was working at Chancellorsville today when the entire battlefield visitor center began to shift and buck. Lights flickered, then went dark. Things began to tumble from shelves. Exhibits were jostled. “It was like a jumbo jet was trying to land on top of us,” she told me. “It felt like the entire building was going to explode.”
She called me right after the quake to let me know she was okay. Shortly thereafter, she lost cell signal as everyone else in central Virginia clogged the airwaves with calls to their own loved ones. I heard shortly thereafter from a friend who’d been eating lunch in downtown Fredericksburg when the quake hit. “A chimney across the street fell and a section of chimney from Market Bldg toppled over,” he said. Another friend in town had glassware and pictures topple and shatter. “We were lucky to get away with a relatively small amount of cleanup,” he said.
These were the voices I wanted to hear in the wake of the quake—voices of people close to the scene.
Instead, when Americans tuned into the news, they were treated to shots of people milling around in city streets, the news reporters milling around with them, reporting on all the milling around.
Public officials in cities far from Mineral took the chance to grandstand for cameras, wearing expression of deep gravitas. The news was, for the most part, good: no major damage, no devastation, no lives lost.
Why was it, then, that the cable stations somehow seemed almost apologetic that they didn’t have any interesting calamity to show? Why did they seem so disappointed?
The quake reminded me that even in the most earth-shaking circumstances, our news outlets don’t necessarily have to do any actual reporting so long as they can fill their newsholes with chatter. Their coverage left me more shaken than the quake.