08.23.11

Washington’s Earthquake Farce

The earth shook briefly. Some buildings swayed. People were puzzled. And the TV crews pounced. Howard Kurtz on why an earthquake blip in the Washington area got the crisis treatment.

It was a dramatic day on the world stage.

A ragtag group of Libyan rebels had fought their way to the center of Tripoli and were on the verge of breaking a brutal dictator’s four-decade rule. They had broken through Muammar Gaddafi’s heavily fortified compound; nobody knew whether he was inside. As in Tunisia, as in Egypt, what had long seemed impossible was on the verge of becoming reality.

And then: the ground shook in the Washington area for about 15 seconds.

Goodbye, rebels. Hello, pandemonium.

And thereby hangs a tale of media behavior and public attention spans that may carry a lesson beyond the oddity of an East Coast tremor.

At the beginning of August, the country’s attention was riveted by a man-made Washington disaster that brought the government to the brink of default for no reason other than endless political squabbling.

Toward the end of August, the country’s attention was riveted by an act of nature that, while briefly anxiety-provoking, stopped well short of disaster.

I was a block from the White House when I heard the loud rumble, saw park benches rattling, and wondered whether a passing cement truck was to blame.

Despite my finely honed journalistic instincts, I didn’t realize it was an earthquake. People looked around, puzzled, and resumed their conversations. Only when thousands of workers started pouring out of downtown office buildings did I realize that something of a higher magnitude was up.

Earthquake 'destruction' photos

But it wasn’t much of a higher magnitude, at least this distance from the epicenter of the 5.8 quake in Virginia. Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into the Upper Crust pizzeria and, up on the wall past the freshly baked pies, saw CNN in breaking-news mode.

The Libyan rebels had vanished. On the cable news channels, it was all quake, all the time.

It was a perfect media story on a sunny Tuesday afternoon: lots of pictures, lots of person-on-the-street interviews, lots of clicks online—but without the messy and depressing reality of an actual disaster. No one, as far as I can tell, was seriously injured, but everyone was buzzing. As officials called press conferences, it looked, felt, and smelled like news—but only in a surreal sense.

Now, of course we should cover such an unusual event, minor though it would have been in L.A. The Capitol was evacuated, trains were slowed down, flights were delayed, and work ground to a halt in the capital—though in the dog days of summer it was hard to tell. Some D.C. buildings sustained minor damage, and, as I can personally attest, traffic was in utter gridlock even miles from downtown as everyone tried to drive home at once. Cellphone service was close to nonexistent.

Meanwhile, there was a 5.7 earthquake near Trinidad, Colo., at midnight Monday that also did little damage. Did you hear about it? No, because Colorado isn’t a major media center crawling with TV crews the way Washington is (not to mention New York, where news executives got interested when their skyscrapers swayed).

Much of the media has only one volume these days, and that is loud.

What gave those few seconds currency, of course, was that they were a shared experience, felt as far away as Toronto. It was a smartphone quake, as people texted family and friends to make sure they were all right. They flocked to Twitter with observations and jokes (“the debt ceiling finally collapsed”). President Obama had the temerity to be golfing on the Vineyard when the homeland was threatened. I kept waiting for the Republicans to start slamming him for inaction.

And if this modest tectonic shift seemed overblown on a million info-outlets, well, much of the media has only one volume these days, and that is loud. A story isn’t just big, it isn’t just huge, it’s the only story—that is, until the next fixation (have you seen Hurricane Irene on the weather maps?) comes along to replace it.

That’s why everyone went into team-coverage mode, geological experts were trotted out, and random people on the street were interviewed. The classic local-news question: what about the Big One? Could it happen here?

With no serious damage to worry about, it was like a giant training exercise on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (which will become its own obsession as the appointed date draws closer). Like the elaborately choreographed escape from default, it was a signal moment of Washington unreality, more farce than tragedy. By now the whole thing feels like a blip on the media Richter scale.

Whatever happened to those Libyan rebels, anyway?