When the Storms Come, Does the Media’s Racism Show?
The coverage of Hurricane Irma has been all about the news media and its US-centrism
I was taken aback by this week’s news coverage of Hurricane Irma as it gained strength, became a Category 5 phenomenon, and swept its way through Barbuda, parts of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. I was horrified as it slammed into Cuba late Friday night with sustained winds of over 160 miles per hour. I was between numb and teary in seeing the flattened towns, the smashed buildings, and in learning that more than two dozen people had died in Hurricane Irma’s path. I was in disbelief, knowing that nearly all of Barbuda will need to be rebuilt.
But my sense of calm wasn’t just disturbed by this all-time powerful storm, one that with climate change, will likely get dwarfed by Hurricane José next week or by some other hurricane very soon. Like with so much news, the American press made Hurricane Irma all about themselves and all about Americans. It was as if the lives of the Black and Brown invite the American gaze. It was as if the billions of dollars of damage and lives lost occurred in an alternate universe. It was and remains unacceptable that from an American news perspective, only American lives matter internationally, and only White American lives matter domestically.
Bill Karins, NBC News meteorologist, is the most guilty of this way of thinking. In reporting on the path of Hurricane Irma and its slightly western shift Friday night on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, Karins could barely contain his enthusiasm. “In the last five or six hours, torrential rains in Cuba and the eye is very close to the north shore now. That’s going to be one of the keys to this forecast. How close does the storm get to Cuba? Does it make landfall in Cuba? And also, does it weaken over Cuba? That’s the sliver of hope I can give everyone in South Florida.”
If Karins had said something this thoughtless regarding Cuba once, one could excuse it as a simple slip of the tongue. But no, Karins made more references to the idea that Cuba, its people and its communities, could save South Florida for America. Not once, but twice an hour later, on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Karins said, “Cuba can weaken the storm more than anticipated.” I’m sure it would’ve surprised Cuba’s 12 million citizens that their island nation was uninhabited, that there was no property in danger of destruction, and that their lives didn’t matter at all.
Karins’ wasn’t the only example of American lives mattering more than those of other humans, particularly Black and Brown ones in the wake of Hurricane Irma. In general, the American media provided scant coverage of the hurricane as it dropped a hydrogen bomb’s worth of destruction on Barbuda. They turned a blind eye as Irma plowed through villages in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti. They barely noted Irma as it left a million people in Puerto Rico without electricity — American citizens mind you — which may take months of work to restore. Normally I would say that the media’s elitism is showing in what it covers (and doesn’t) and how it covers. But in this case, the media’s representation of America’s elitist racism is showing like a model with a foot-long run in her stocking during Fashion Week in New York.
Once the Twitter world kicked in to criticize it, the American media did step up its Irma coverage in Cuba Saturday. Widespread damage and flooding did occur, including in Havana, but luckily, Cuban authorities had already evacuated the areas most damaged. Too bad CNN wasn’t there to witness this process. Too bad the limited coverage of Hurricane Irma and Cuba still framed the event as “What does this mean for us?”
Right now, Irma’s churning its way up the Florida Keys and Florida’s west coast, packing Category 4 winds and bringing with it a 12-foot wall of water. So of course people should have concern for the people, the friends, and the family members in Irma’s way. Americans and those who care about human lives should pray, volunteer, and give what they can, if they can, to help everyone in need.
But the world is full of terrors and storms and other events. Why is it that Americans must watch BBC World News to get coverage of Hurricane Irma outside the US? Or watch France 24 to learn of the flooding and mudslide devastation in Sierra Leone? Or watch in combination online and on TV the BBC, CCTV, and Al Jazeera to learn of near apocalyptic flooding in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, leaving more than 1,300 dead and upwards of 40 million people affected in some way, with millions of them homeless? And what about the 8.1 magnitude earthquake off southwest Mexico’s coast, where the bodies are too numerous to bury? Heck, what about the Rohingya crisis, in which 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the Myanmar security forces have engaged in ethnic cleansing tactics? They have set off a humanitarian crisis in a region already beleaguered by near apocalyptic flooding.
Why? Because when it comes right down to it, most Americans barely care about other Americans, especially the most vulnerable of Americans. That’s what 400 years of racism and narcissism have led to. Most Americans either don’t care that much of this allegedly natural devastation stems from climate change, or act as if there is nothing that can be done about it. And the American press and media know this, and decided some time ago that it’s better to profit off of ignorance than to inform the public and make them uncomfortable. Another log on the stack of America’s enduring shame as the world’s most powerful and yet most do-nothing nation.