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Monday, June 07, 2010

Media is No Help in Oil Disaster

Hulk smash!I am so angry... mad, mad, mad! Observe as I stomp my feet and shake my fists at the sky. Behold my clenched teeth and the deep line between my eyebrows. See my body tremble with barely controlled rage as I let loose a long string of stream of consciousness profanity that verges on the poetic. I throw things, I break things, I jump up and down.

OK, now lets check the oil gusher in the gulf; anything change down there?

Yeah, I didn't think so. Some pundits seem to think that the biggest problem with President Obama's response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been a lack of visible rage. That's right, the president has been too calm in the face of a nearly unimaginable environmental catastrophe. I'm not sure if he's supposed to go down and slash at the oil slick with a samurai sword or what, but I have my doubts that Obama's rage would be any more effective than mine was. Sure, he's more powerful than I am, but I think we can all agree that believing that reality changes to match our emotional state is a belief in magic. Obama can't intimidate the well into submission by displaying his rage.

What's happening here is that pundits, having no more idea what to do than anyone else does, have to say something. Lights are on, cameras are rolling, say something. They're paid to have an opinion, regardless of whether that opinion is helpful or even makes any damned sense at all. So they do what they do -- they make stuff up. Without any polling data to back them up, they take it on themselves to tell other talking heads "what the American people want." The actual physical problem is beyond them, so they cook up a political problem that didn't previously exist. In other words punditry, you're not helping. Not that you ever do.

I'm not saying I believe that a political take on the problem is unimportant. I just think this particular political take is stupid and counterproductive. It creates an unsolvable problem; if Obama suddenly breaks into a fit of rage, they'll immediately declare it as false as it would be. If he doesn't, they'll continue this idiotic argument. Lose/lose.

Politically speaking, every crisis is an opportunity (and no, I'm not about to give you some self-help crap about Chinese characters). President Obama can lay on his back and kick his feet or he can actually do something constructive. Politically speaking, there's a disconnect between the oil in the Gulf and the gas in our tanks. Add global warming and peak oil to this environmental disaster and it becomes pretty clear that we're going to have to get off this stuff. It is, after all, 19th century technology -- we might as well be using steam engines to get around. NPR's Brian Mann spoke with a few people at a gas station and discovered that this disconnect runs deep.

Gas is something we all want -- and want cheap. Most of the people I talked to were driving what you'd have to call gas-guzzlers, so I asked whether they feel any personal culpability.

"Uh, no," [Dwayne] Carpenter says. When I ask the question, he looks sort of angry.

"You know, we have to survive up here," he says. "The truck is my livelihood. Without it, I wouldn't have my business. So if those gas prices go up, we have to pay it."

I hear this a lot. People are disgusted by the oil spill, but what really has them worried is the idea that gas prices will spike.

Getting off oil seems to be unthinkable. When Carpenter considers helping to avoid future spills, his truck disappears in his mind. Somehow, we've gotten to the point where a machine that works just as well, but doesn't burn petroleum, is fantasy. Get rid of oil and we're all hoofing it. the "teachable moment" is an overused cliche, but if there were ever a time that it fit, it's now. Former CNN correspondent Tony Collins writes that the media themselves have a responsibility here.

[J]ournalists have worked hard to keep us informed on the most important news developments. Now it’s time for news media to focus more on the policy implications. The New York Times had a good editorial Saturday on the need for the Senate to stop delaying and pass the comprehensive energy bill. This oil spill is a terrible tragedy, and there probably is no silver lining, but at least it could be a wake-up call, and journalists should take advantage of the enormous public interest in it to focus more on policy. News media should create a forum for an intelligent, reasoned debate on where we go from here with our energy policy. They should tell us what enlightened policy experts are saying about what we need to do, at last, once and for all, to drastically cut back on dependence on oil.

So no fruitless worrying over whether Obama is emoting enough. We could be at a cultural and technological turning point, the year that everything started changing, and a lot of people seem to think the big political story is the president is taking on the situation calmly -- and that this is a bad thing. Meanwhile, they're not only ignoring the real big story, but are actually distracting from it.


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