MEDIAQUAKE

08.23.11

Inside D.C.'s Mediaquake

Not much news, but wall-to-wall coverage

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.

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. Uh, what happened to the Libyan rebels who had just taken over the Gaddafi compound? They 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 East Coast event, minor though it might be 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 late August, it was hard to tell. Some D.C. buildings sustained minor damage, and, as I can personally attest (since the building housing the NEWSWEEK/Daily Beast bureau was shut down for the day), 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).

Honestly, given that no one was badly hurt, doesn’t this wall-to-wall coverage feel like overkill? Isn’t this going to feel like a blip on the media Richter scale tomorrow? Whatever happened to those Libyan rebels, anyway?