Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What happens when the dog finally catches the car? Mike Bettes' open heart in Joplin; Aaron Barnhart misses THE ethical question in the Star

Watching Mike Bettes, the Weather Channel's tornado chaser, catch his prey Sunday afternoon in Joplin was one of those moments of live television which stop you in your tracks. It was not hard to see that Bettes had gotten more than he bargained for.

The wise injunction to 'be careful what you wish for,' may have gone through his head at the moment he stood among the bare shards of trees and cars, the devastated hospital framing the sky in the background.

Bettes seemed quite sincerely moved. So often television turns life into a game of sorts -- a contest, a reality show. We know it does this to politics and political scientists suspect this is destructive to our schema about what is really at stake in an election.

Talk to a Vietnam veteran -- anti-war or not -- about how television coverage led away from the reality of that bleak moment in history rather than revealing it. My sense is early on Vietnam was covered as a trench war -- like WWI or the Civil War, or even WWII -- geographical coverage that lent itself to maps and advances and retreats, territory taken or lost. Reality was much different.

So, it is no surprise tornado chasing has perhaps obscured the reality of these enormously destructive storms. Mike Bettes seemed to be realizing this Sunday afternoon. We must be grateful to him for allowing his emotions to show. Television is best at showing emotion and genuine emotion -- not scripted, not contrived -- is rare on television these days.

Aaron Barnhart, the Kansas City Star's television "critic", wrote about Bettes today, but his piece was little more than a collage of one-liners from good sources. It was, in modern parlance, well-sourced but it was written on auto-pilot. Barnhart missed THE most important question raised by Mike Bettes at the scene, and today amplified by the presence of everyone from Al Roker to Anderson Cooper, and every television talker in this town.

Let's go back to the moments after the storm and Mike Bettes holding the microphone, stunned and humbled by the utter destruction as far has his cameraman could pan. A man comes up, stage left, obviously distraught, moves into the frame, tells Bettes he's just burrowed out of his house and he needs help finding his 74-year-old neighbor. Great television, eh?

You can see the ethical problem developing like a storm cloud in the reporter's head. Does he help? Or does he film? He tries feebly to evade the horns of the bull by telling the guy he will help and walking back with him to what might have been a house. But he doesn't really help -- what could he do with one hand -- and, if memory serves, we are abruptly switched to commercial so we never really know what came next.

Here's how you phrase the question: Confronted with immediate need, do you continue to broadcast or do you put down the microphone and begin trying to move lumber?

The answer might seem simple to those who are not reporters, which is one clue reporters need to notice. People who aren't reporters say, "Well, yes. Of course." But reporters often take another position, a position their bosses take even more strongly. My job is not to rescue; my job is to report. We all have our jobs.

For Bettes, the argument is more difficult because he was not just reporting but also warning. On the microphone, he was telling people, literally, the tornado is still on the ground east of here, for god sake, take cover. He had a compelling reason to keep talking.

Still, a man may have been trapped under that rubble behind him. He could have put the microphone down, and his cameraman could have put the camera down, and they both could have started pawing through the debris. Would you have blamed them? Would you have applauded?

I was raising this issue in the abstract in class several years ago when a student held up his hand. His father, he said, had been a cameraman at a local television station -- I don't recall which -- and had been one of the first to arrive at the scene of the Hyatt Regency collapse in 1981 where about the same number of people were crushed by concrete as died in the Joplin twister. In fact, he had arrived before fire and police -- a true first responder that day. He could hear cries for help inside the rubble. My student said his father called into the station on the radio and told his boss he was putting down the camera and going in.

According to my student, his boss told him his job was to take pictures and he'd be fired if he didn't.

He didn't and he was fired.

As you can imagine, our discussion went from abstract to real in a heartbeat. That's what reality does. It takes the abstract -- a tornado forming because the jet stream is stuck in a late winter mode -- and makes it real. Mike Bettes gave us a glimpse of what happens when reality strikes and we have to be grateful to him for opening his heart and our eyes. And, in his dilemma, we glimpsed a big ethical issue -- are reporters, when the rubber of a crisis meets the road, observers or doers? Which raises the even bigger ethical issue of what television does to us viewers when it turns its mighty power to making us passive observers rather than doers.

And if the television observer at the local newspaper can't see the real dilemma here, the reality of our passivity will continue to elude us, both as viewers and as professionals in news. This was a genuine lost moment -- on television and in print. If the Star could spare Aaron Barnhart from television criticism and send him to Joplin to cover the damage and the rescue effort, he would -- if he were not on ethical auto-pilot -- be forced to face this critical issue.


I see where Tony wrote on this, too, this morning. I think he missed the point also because he was thinking in the old-school journalism way about objectivity and the passivity being objective requires. That's a surprise coming from Tony's Kansas City.

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