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.
Howard Kurtz wrote a quick piece for The Daily Beast this morning on the media’s seismic shift in coverage yesterday afternoon following a 5.8-magnitude earthquake south of Washington, D.C. (pun fully intended).
Indeed, I hopped on Twitter just as the reports of an earthquake were coming in. The cable channels, and even the broadcast stations quickly jumped on board. Suddenly, the uprising in Libya was gone.
Sure, it was unique – earthquakes don’t happen on the east coast. This was the strongest quake felt on the seaboard since 1944, so there is certainly the unusualness news value at work. And there appears to have been some damage to the National Cathedral in Washington – no doubt noteworthy. But for the most part, the effects looked more like this photo gallery compiled by the Sacramento Bee.
So, why did American media leave the far more important events in Tripoli for what amounted to a minor earthquake? Kurtz suggests a few different factors, most notably that the quake occurred in a media epicenter, was felt in many large cities, and that word of it spread so rapidly through social media and text messaging. He also points to the narrative the media had been handed by an act of God:
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.
Newsworthy? Sure. Worthy of non-stop crisis coverage and break-ins on broadcast networks? Not when international reporters are having some of their finest moments in decades covering a revolution that, lest we forget, is being aided by the United States and its NATO allies.
Another shining moment for Al Jazeera English, which continued its live stream of events in Libya even when we became preoccupied over here.
Finally, a Tweet I loved from New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter as the Twitterverse was exploding yesterday afternoon:
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