I suppose I should let this go because in the great horror of what has just happened it’s a mote – annoying yes, but a mote nevertheless – but I can’t; I’m sorry, I just can’t. The shock of the events in Chile snapping so close at the heels of the tragedy on the other side of the Americas was bad enough, but teevee’s ‘coverage’ of the tsunami in the quake’s aftermath was nothing short of abysmal – well, it would have been abysmal if it hadn’t been so blatantly shallow.

Where do they find these people whom they stick behind a desk and call journalists? Over the years I’ve pretty much got used to the fact that most of them have difficulty in putting a coherent sentence together without assistance but when something like this comes along you realize just how little they know about anything or anywhere outside their tiny little bubble.

We had turned to MSNBC for its “live” coverage from Hawaii. Lots of old footage of inexpert surfers – though it took them a couple of hours to admit that it wasn’t live – and lots of breathless nothingness interspersed with bits of talking to experts from NOAA and the Geological Survey and then not listening to anything they said.

Those who know such things told them repeatedly that they couldn’t predict just how high the waves might be outside a broad range of 1 to 5 feet with perhaps a peak at 7 or 8 and stressed it’s not the height that does the damage but the implacable force of the water. No matter. Slowly but surely the expected wave grew to 8 feet high and we were shown pictures of the last damaging tsunami that hit Hawaii just in case we weren’t worried enough.

All the while the anchor back at the desk blathered on, unashamedly revealing his appalling ignorance; if not of life, the universe and everything, then certainly of things maritime. He spoke “live by phone” to a businessman in Waikiki who told him the water was receding which, he said, was strange because high tide had been just an hour or two before. In response to a “What does that mean?” the businessman had to explain what a tide was. Not well enough it would seem, for a few minutes later up pops a blood-red banner with reversed-out caps: “STRANGE TIDES: DIRTY WATER.”

We crossed to a bored girl reporter: “Can you describe the scene there for us——?”  (I forget her name.)

“Well I think I can see something…yes…no nothing’s happening…there’s lots of helicopters and boats,  though.”

“Great, can you describe the helicopters for us?”

While this was going on, the live feed from Diamond Head was showing increasingly turbid water receding to expose rocks I’d reckon were some 100 yards from the shoreline. Nobody in the news crew noticed until someone told them. Thinking anything had to be better than this, we switched to Fox where we got an anonymous person “by phone, live from Hawaii”: “They’ve asked people to leave their homes and go to the higher ground.”

Breathless anchor, female this time: “Oh my gah…oh my g…why would they make them do that? Isn’t that closer to Chile?”

Crikey! Back to MSNBC and our intrepid boy anchor*: “We’ve just heard that the tsunami has hit American Su-mo-uh.” He crossed to a spokeswoman from NOAA who told him that water had covered the floor of the Pago mall.

“Can you tell us where that is in relation to… to…?”

“It’s about a mile inland from the sea in Pago Pago.”

“Oh, well thank you. Well we haven’t been able to get any news from American Su-mo-uh. Back to Diamond Head where…where…Oh, now we’re showing you muddy water where the tsunami covered Coconut Island.” Not yet it hadn’t; the grass was still green.

Sorry about this, but I have to break here to pose a question. Why, oh why do teevee journalists, even the halfway decent ones, have so much trouble with Pago Pago and American Samoa? (I’ve heard Pan-go Pango, and Paygo Paygo, both purported to be in American Su-mo-uh.) It is an American territory after all and you’d think they’d make an effort. I know the Englishcentric missionaries and bureaucrats who codified so many of the “outlandish heathen” languages didn’t make it easy for us, but Polynesian is so beautiful and so easy.

Quick lesson: Polynesian vowels are, roughly, a as in car, e as in bet, i as in peat, o as in more, u as in blue. The only consonant we have to worry about here is the g which should be written ng – but thanks to aforementioned Englishcentrics isn’t – and pronounced as a single consonant as it is in wing. In Polynesian, the emphasis is always on the first syllable, so the first vowel in each case is broadened slightly: Pango Pango in American Samoa. Americans pronounce the wh in wheel beautifully, and the s in diabetes, so why so much trouble with Samoa?

And so the coverage dragged on for hour after hour. One good graphic showing the areas expected to be affected by the tsunami and one not so good of the tragic folly of allowing high rises to be built too close to beaches – at least I think that’s what it was trying to show us.

Now I’m not complaining that the tsunami was a non-event in terms of teevee viewing – I’ve seen the effects of so-called killer waves from the Southern Ocean, both ashore and at sea and don’t need reminding – but they wasted a golden opportunity to expand our understanding.

They could have told us what effect the waves might have on tiny Pacific nations already being eroded by rising sea levels; they could have explained just what a vast area the Pacific is and how isolated some of its inhabitants are; but they didn’t. They did however manage to convey a sense of disappointment that there were no shots of killer waves tearing into the Hawaiian Islands and not a little resentment that the forces of nature refused to cooperate with their cameras.

However it did teach me one valuable lesson: never, never, under any circumstances, rely on commercial teevee networks for any sort of information in any sort of an emergency.

*The thought just crossed my mind. Are they called anchors because one day a long time ago a real journalist, fed up with trying to get her story broadcast coherently, cast one into the sea? Or is it just a polite way of saying they’re a millstone around our necks.

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Frank Povah

Frank Povah

Arriving in the USA in late 2008, Frank Povah moved to Stamping Ground, Kentucky in mid 2009. Passionate about the written and spoken word and constantly bewildered by non-verbs and neo-nouns, Frank trained as a typesetter - though he has worked at many things - and later branched out into proofreading, writing and editing. For many years he has been copy editor, consultant and columnist with a prestigious Australian quarterly along with running his own editorial and typesetting business. His other interests are many and include traditional music, especially that of the south, folklore, natural history, and pigeons.

6 Comments
  1. Frank one other part that astounded me being a full moon was the shot of the beach and rivers at low tide saying the water was moving out to the tsunami. A full moon tide is highest at a high tide and is also lowest at a low tide. The lower tide would have happened without a tsunami but at the slower rate of change as shown. Our tides on the Atlantic side are from dead low to 6 to 9+ feet high. The moon phase and wind being the defining control of depth. I did finally hear one of the anchors? admit to the low tide.

  2. I watched the non-event from the vantage of the Honolulu Advertiser’s live camera from Waikiki. No talking, just shots panning the waterfront and beyond. An inset had Tweets from the other islands in the Hawaiian chain attesting to the “talking heads” who were not reporting. All I could think of was how empty the parking lots and beaches were, and how amazing it was that all those people had been warned and had heeded the warning. I did worry about the boats in the yacht basin, but they came through with flying colors; concrete and fiberglass hulls do not mix.

  3. My thoughts exactly!! CNN said it would be “any moment now”. That was the news flash for over an hour!

  4. Well-done again, Povah! This morning I watched our saccharine local network Barbie (not in Atlanta) ask a guest a series of questions referring to her notes and interrupting his answers with the next questions!

  5. Cliff Green

    Frank, it’s going to get worse.
    ABC News is cutting 400 staff members, about one-forth of its employees. CBS has already fired 70 people this year. You know who goes in these massacres, the people who draw the largest salaries, i.e., the old timers who know where Pago Pago is and how to pronounce it. (According to the New York Times, the only network news operation keeping it’s head above water is NBC, which can push some of its expenses over onto MSNBC, which collects money from cable subscribers in addition to selling advertising.)
    If you think people are stupid now, wait until their only source of information is FOX News.

  6. I bet those 7o people from CBS really feel stiffed when they hear it announced that Curic is making 28 million dollars a year.

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