Online Political Writers: Reactions to the Tsunami Catastrophe

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When an earthquake and a tsunami hit and cause deaths in the tens of thousands, what should a blogger do?. There's three broad things that a media publication address: honor the victims; provide relief for the survivors; consider how to mitigate the risk for the future. I have reviewed the responses from the last three days of 25 online political writers (bloggers and columnists). I wasn't expecting much, as I had picked those who cover on the American political scene (some of the "independents," as I call them, actually dabble in many subjects). But this is a global world, after all, and it is cataclysmic events like this which should bring out the best in writers.

The best thing in this situation, I thought, would not be to spin at all. Some spun left, some spun right; others counter-spun against foes real and imagined. Curiously some are seeing in this a triumph of the blogosphere itself, despite the massive failure of the ability to communicate information to the danger zones before the tsunami hit. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world," Hawaii warning center geophysicist Charles McCreery told the Los Angeles Times.

Only in one place did I hear of questions asked about whether a given blog needs to comment on this at all. In Jim Geraghty's soon-to-be-renamed "KerrySpot" blog on the National Review Online, he exposes Kevin McCullough blasting three left-of-center blogs for not writing enough about the disaster relief efforts: "Without question these are three of the most heavily read blogs and for the lack of compassion that they communicate is disgusting in and of itself."

Geraghty addresses it gracefully: "They do their thing; I don't know if asking readers to help out with their [sic] disaster necessarily fits with their content. Ultimately, it's up to their writers/editors/bloggers."

He's right. Some bloggers see themselves as universal guides to the world at large, much like a television network news anchor a generation ago. But others trust a search engine or a local news portal to serve this role, allowing them to simply stick to their field of expertise. Here we we can review what each influential writer/blogger did in as compared to others near them in the online publishing spectrum.

The Independent/Collaboratives

John Heinderaker on Powerline posted on this thrice, first on Sunday 3:32pm where linked to Glenn Reynolds. He added the curious observation:

It's always struck me that casualties resulting from natural disasters inspire less horror than those caused by violence. More people have been killed today by tidal waves in Asia than have been killed in the last year and a half of violence in Iraq. Yet it is unlikely that today's earthquake will stay in the news for more than a day or two.

Two days later, it was still very much in the news. Tuesday 10:18am: "Some have already attributed the death toll at least in part to global warming," citing an AFP story. He also noted that Israel's help has been rejected by Sri Lanka. In other political/media news, Powerline has been debunking columns by Fred Kaplan and Tom Friedman in the Sunday Times "Week in Review" section. Sunday night at 10:14pm, Scott Johnson ties these themes together, relaying a tip noting the irony that Friedman doesn't factor in "military foreign aid" that comes as part of disaster relief.

Jerome Armstrong at MyDD continues to focus on the DNC chair race.

In DailyKos, the coverage comes from diarist Armando, a New Yorker. He writes five posts over three days, the first Sunday noon EST: "Reminding how little we understand about the mystery of life, two natural disasters, a series of tidal waves caused by a massive earthquake, have caused the deaths of thousands of innocent souls." On the domestic front, Kos sneaks away from his vacation once again to point out that he's still following the DNC Chair race, and that Jerome "has been blogging up a storm over at MyDD."

The Independents

Glenn Reynolds, makes 62 blog posts over the course of 3 days; ten of them about the tsunami. Breaks the news on Sunday 11:20am, providing some links to bloggers from that region, such as Malaysia's Jeff Ooi, as well as a couple of stories in the Sydney Morning Herald. Over the next couple of days, he builds up a case for blog triumphalism, culminating in a post on his MSNBC, "The Internet rules", which I will address in the analysis tomorrow. Also on his mind is four posts about Hugh Hewitt's book: finding it in the mail, finishing it less than 24 hours later, and then blurbing it twice more.

Atrios makes two posts, the first is Sunday 5:32pm: "Will link to reputable and serious disaster relief efforts if any come to my attention." On Tuesday 9:06am compared initial $15m of U.S. with budget of $30-$40m for Presidential Inauguration.

Charles Johnson posted a few times over the three days. Tuesday 8:45am he passed along the Washington Times editorial lashing out at Jan Egeland of the UN for "calling the United States's donation 'stingy'". This will be a repeated meme amongst the conservatives, which Joshua Holland of The Gadflyer has to explain later in the day.

Later at 12:18am he gives this short post: "Belmont Club, as always, has some very good posts about the gigantic earthquake and tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people, including a link to this animation of the killer waves propagating across the Bay of Bengal." To say nothing about those tens of thousands of people. On the domestic front, Johnson notes the death of Susan Sontag, and immediately reminds his readers of her post-9/11 New Yorker essay, which he found sufficiently anti-American. But then he backtracked, citing her earlier writings.

The Belmont Club was also referenced by Glenn Reynolds. What's so good about it? Neither Johnson nor Reynolds take the time to comment on it. The part which Reynolds excerpts makes the assertion that a tsunami should be considered just a s rare an event as an asteroid strike. Huh? But there is one part worth considering: "The Indian subcontinent, still some hours distant from the ocean monster which was then bearing down at airliner speed, might have received the benefit of warning." And that's where the LA Times story should have been cited with its real sources. Instead the Belmont Club has to sit on an empty metaphor "like an organism whose nervous pathways exist yet do not meet in a central place where the impulses can be collated to make sense, no one knew what to make of the data."

Jeff Jarvis, posts twice on Sunday, first linking to bloggers, and then to the again on Monday, and then on Tuesday, mostly making a big deal of the fact that the video and still pictures are being obtained from average citizens "We are all reporters. I've written often that I wonder what would have been different if I'd had a camera or cameraphone with me at the World Trade Center on 9/11: An event viewed from a rooftop three miles away would have been viewed from a human level instead." Well, my friend Alan was right there on Chambers St. and was one of many who took pictures with his camera that day. His lens did not stop the towers from collapsing and three thousand people from being killed.

The Pundits

Josh Marshall spends most of the three days continuing to expose the "Fainthearted Faction" of the Democratic Party, who he suspects are likely to abandon the party's commitment to social security. But by Tuesday 11:49pm he takes the first peak at tomorrow's Washington Post, which contains news of what the President thinks about the tragedy. Marshall's headline: "President's latest response to the tsunami tragedy: badmouth Bill Clinton." According to his aides, the approach is not do anything that Clinton would have done– like make a public statement on camera. This should start the blog cycle for tomorrow.

Andrew Sullivan is on vacation, so he has some guest bloggers serving up the Daily Dish. Monday, 2:11am: Guest blogger Steven Menashi provides a few links about the tsunami, nothing special.

Hugh Hewitt promotes his designated charity five times, explaining that "WorldVision is the most efficient disaster relief agency in the world." Nobody else seems to make that claim, but the agency's website does make this claim: "World Vision helps transform the lives of children and families in need in the name of Christ". Hewitt also promotes his new book, cleverly called Blog, ten times over the course of three days. Only two posts appear to not flog is book– and one of them flogs two of his peers' books. What's weird is how the promotions all rush together. At Tuesday 8:25am PST, Hewitt gives pointers to some blogs, then describes the most efficient disaster relief agency in the world, and then gives some "blog flogs"– people flacking his book– leading into: "This is why newspapers are doomed unless they figure out how to provide better pointers than others are doing for free right now. Papers should have entire sections of their web site front page devoted to blog pointers so as to attract the online traffic looking for info." Why not just cut out the middleman and have pointers directly to a place to buy his book, Blog?

On the Washington Monthly, Kevin Drum continues just relaying along stuff he's reading in Slate or from Juan Cole on Iraq. Guest contributor Amy Sullivan steps up to make proper mention of the catastrophe: Monday 4:19pm: "it can be easy to forget that despite amazing advances, we are still not able to cure–or even diagnose–many diseases and we cannot prevent–or even, it seems, accurately predict–earthquakes and other natural disasters. Such massive destruction is truly humbling." Amy provides links to a WP story, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders.

Michelle Malkin writes on Monday 1:47pm, quoting Kofi Annan's pledge of offer of U.N. help– and then throws up a link to report of the sex scandal among U.N. Peacekeepers in the Congo (the scandal: they were having some. update: nonconsensual sex with underage girls). In U.S. political news, she defends Donald Rumsfeld for his verbal slip in Iraq where he said "shot down the plane over Pennsylvania" referring to United Flight 93. She says that Rumsfeld was clearly tired, but it gives her a chance to get back to some necessary concerns that bother few Washington pundits. "Are combat air patrols equipped to handle another 9/11 today?"

Malkin wraps up Tuesday 7:58pm by citing Reynolds and the Wall Street Journal editorial page: "In the wake of the Asian earthquake/tsunami disaster, several commentators have made the astute argument that the best defense against such catastrophic risks is economic growth." Well it's a good thing we've had all that good economic growth to defend against the next 9/11 as she was worried about earlier. But then she digs up "the late, great" Aaron Wildavsky, who adds that it's not just economic growth we need: "a strategy of resilience requires much less predictive capacity but much more growth, not only in wealth but also in knowledge."

So for the necessary knowledge growth let's turn to the National Review Online, where Jim Geraghty is reliably thorough in his analyses. For most of Tuesday morning he matches MyDD's fascnation with the DNC Chair race (quick test for liberals: would you have any interest in a similar contest in the RNC?) At noon he picks up on the UN-whines-about-us-being-stingy meme, which, again, can't really be pinned on Jan Egeland. To his credit, he gives the data on non-governmental foreign aid. It must annoy him to heck that the big-time conservative bloggers aren't citing him here, as far as I can tell.

After hearing Egeland backtrack at 1:47pm, he has the gall to continue hammering away: "One still wonders if Egeland gives 1 percent of his gross personal income to charity." Well, do you Geraghty? What does this have to do with the price of onions in Bermuda? If you happen to ask me, I do. Next? And then it's back to the DNC for Geraghty, looking into Marshall's "Fainthearted Faction."

Mickey Kaus returns from the weekend to continue hammering away at Frank Raines, chairman of Fannie Mae. Timothy Noah seeks a name for the current decade. As expected, Slate deputizes "International Papers" and "Explainer" to the task of summarizing what's in the foreign press, and whether an earthquake of this magnitude can change the earth's rotation. That's why I love Slate, it sure keeps things in perspective. It's possible that this is just a reaction to new management.

The Media

Joe Conasson's still on break. Salon's War Room blog has a couple of posts today. At Tuesday 12:49pm PST, points to a post in WorldChanging, or rather, its first comment as well as the crucial LA Times story about the communications failures. This was followed by Farhad Manjoo's post at 1:27pm PST, passing along economist Jeffrey Sachs's observation "there remains the impression that the U.S. is interested in helping people only when it has something to gain." He concludes with the cynical comment: "A good test of the Bush administration's generosity — not to mention the generosity of all Americans — is whether our government can now muster as much money for far-off foreigners as we could for Americans in an all-important swing state"

Eric Alterman at Altercation, Tuesday 1:09pm passes along the point about the initial U.S. pledge being half the inauguration costs (citing "Dr. Atrios"). And would you believe, at that exact same time, the State Department held its daily press briefing where it announced that it was doubling the amount? It was even on CSPAN2.

ABC's The Note is on holiday break. As is the American Prospect's Tapped. If Andew Sullivan can have substitutes, why can't these guys?

William Safire's column on Monday covers the painkiller scares. Of course, he can afford to, since the rest of the Times can deal with the rest of the world. To meet Hugh Hewitt's plea, they do have a special online section set up with links galore to Malay to Bangalore. As for the print edition, it's worth the buck that it charges. Times today devoted most of its front page to the story. As for the print edition, there are three front page stories, and four more pages inside. There are stories filed from India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, along with specific focuses on the relief effort (with addresses/websites for 13 relieve agencies), the medical response, a report from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, and a local report from the southern Asian communities in the New York area. Rounding out the report were separate stories about the Media and the Internet: "Blogs Provide Raw Details From Scene of Disaster." I'll write more about this in the analysis tomorrow.

The Collaboratives

Joshua Holland of the Gadflyer weighs in on Tuesday, 2:48pm that the Washington Times blew the "stingy" accusation way out of proportion with the headline: "'U.N. official slams U.S. as 'stingy' over aid.'" In addition, he finds that the Wall Street Journal editorial page unleashes a backlash against the global warming connectionists.

The rest of the collaborative sites in the index all have specific focus, and are also on light duty for the holidays. Thomas Lang of Campaign Desk focuses on the the New York Times coverage about the airlines industry (I'm not going to even bother to copy down the link to that). The other media monitoring group on our list, Media Matters is closed for the holiday week.

The Sheffield brothers at RatherBiased have nothing new to report other than a Times article on BuzzMetrics, which references the RatherBiased website. So I went right to the source– I watched the CBS Evening News tonight instead. Rather seemed to be covering the story pretty straight to me– reporting that the U.S. has now upped their pledge to $35m (he did not mention the inauguration costs) He also reported that the U.S. Navy sent an aircraft carrier. Rather has been honoring "Fallen Heroes" of the Iraq War; tonight he read a paragraph on Bryan L. Freeman, Jr. On December 7th, the Sheffields had complained about this very practice: "What's even more questionable is why Rather hasn't done a similar nightly tribute to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks." Maybe they should have subscribed to the New York Times?

What takes the cake in online coverage is World Changing. And it's not surprising, given that this collaborative effort comprises the efforts of seventeen correspondents on three continents. The first seven articles on the site– and these are proper articles, not mere blog-blurbs– are focused on the tsunami tragedy. One story is filed from Mumbai. Two of them hammer away on the fact that no information at all is coming from the military government of Myanmar; both citing Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi, as well as CNN. WorldChanging also takes credit for setting up the Tsunami Help blog. There'll be more about this in the analysis tomorrow.


Looking back on Wednesday, let's see what happened to these loose ends.

Class Acts

Tragedies, or stories into which one has no unique or particular insight, are always a challenge for a blogger because silence is read by many as indifference or inattention. Not so. But in the case of the tragedy unfolding across South and Southeast Asia I'm just an observer.

That's Josh Marshall exhibiting the quiet grace to take pass on commenting on the situation. And Jim Geraghty had the dignity to stand up for him. Amy Sullivan has the sense and sensibility to interrupt the "Political Animal" blog and reflect briefly on the catastrophe.

Liberal say: A pittance! Less money then the inauguration!

From Atrios to Alterman to Kos to Alterman's MSNBC colleague, Keith Olbermann, who didn't blog it, but on Countdown compared the $35M figure to the inauguration cost. Kos also equated the cost "4 hours in Iraq" which Olbermann used as well.

Obviously the money pledged and donated will continue to rise, liberal sniping or not. USAID has given $100M for relief in Sudan without anyone really noticing. Will liberals now keep the Bush administration to their promise to exceed $1B?

Conservatives react: How dare you call us stingy!

The Washington Times, had mounted the stingy defense in Tuesday's paper, but by today's edition relented after checking in. "The White House was forgiving of Mr. Egeland's comments. Spokesman Trent Duffy accepted at face value Mr. Egeland's explanation that his remarks had been misinterpreted. "

This was probably a signal to conservative bloggers to lay off the term, lest the association stick. Though there was one notable exception. When President Bush was asked about whether he was offended of "the suggestion that rich nations have been stingy in the aid over the tsunami," he said "I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill informed." Not too mention misinterpreted.

There's obviously something to be said, as the President did, about Americans giving more through NGO's than through tax dollars. I know I do. Whether or not Jim Geraghty pressures me into revealing it.

Clinton v. Bush

Marshall played up the fact that Bush continues to define himself by not acting as Clinton would. Clinton, for this part, had spoken to the BBC on Tuesday, pressing "that somebody take the lead."

The Internet rules?

At the end of the day came Reynolds's wrap-up for his MSNBC blog, entitled "The Internet Rules". He cites the Times article on blogs and claims victory:

The Internet accounts have given the disaster an immediacy and a personal dimension that traditional news accounts lack, and the self-organizing character of the blogosphere has allowed for rapid response as people who want to help have been put together with ways to help.

Has anyone documented whether these self-organizing efforts mean a blip to established professional aid societies? The Red Cross has had their Family Links resource online to help families connect each other in the wake of conflict or catastrophe. It's not pretty, but it's been online for the last several years, dating at least back to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

But here the Times is really having the last laugh by setting up the bloggers for such hyperbole. The reporter, John Schwartz finds futurist Paul Saffo disappointed, wanting "to see more raw video and analysis." Schwartz also squeezes an indirect quote out of Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing which parrots conventional wisdom: "the [Internet] postings still lack the level of trust that has been earned by more established media."

No one should have any reason to doubt when someone's giving an account of being hit by a tidal wave. But what's really missing on blogs is the big picture, that is plainly presented on a newspaper or traditional website. Instead of a big picture, we have a big blog. Schwartz's article and Public Radio's The World both gave pointers to the Tsunami Help blog. This site is now half a megabyte, which for people with dialup access, will take minute to download. It also takes 160 screenfuls (on a 1024-pixel screen resolution) to scroll down through the whole site. The insistence that cooperative "self-organizing" efforts rely on the blog format, which can grow to an unmanageable size. Instead, would-be self-organizers should consider ways to actually build in an organization system for the data. It could have classifications for country; for type of content; for audience.

Communications Breakdown

Even WorldChanging is joining in on blog triumphalism. But then again, they've been doing the best reporting out of any of the new media cooperatives.

The real story is not that modern telecommunications are saving the day. It's that they didn't. WorldChanging has covered this excellently. Part of the story is that Myanmar has revealed very low death counts– can these be trusted from the totalitarian government? The bigger story is simply how the warnings weren't communicated– across the ocean, across the embassies, from the government to the villagers. That'll be the story to follow going forward.

Update, March 24th: This piece includes a glaring mis-characterization. How terrible of me. The scandal in the Congo was that there were 150 allegations of sexual misconduct– forcing girls and women to have sex in exchange for food. That is the article Malkin pointed to. I did not read it past the headline: "Sex scandal in Congo threatens to engulf UN's peacekeepers." I had mixed it up with another (milder) scandal which involved UN peacekeepers having consensual sex. The UN sex scandal has been getting more press attention, and it should. Was my judgment clouded by the context in which Malkin referenced the article? Perhaps. Here's the context around her quote: "Let's pray that the U.N.'s "help" doesn't look like this again."

By contrast, consider how Ethan Zuckerman, who blogs about Africa regularly and is an occasional consultant to UNITAR, put it in a March 8th post: "And even I, a UN fan, am shocked and horrified by the abuse of power by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, trading pocket change for sexual favors from 12 year old girls."

Regardless, the error is mine and reflects a lack of care in fully researching this story. I regret that.

Nonetheless, the point of this piece does not change. Different online commentators reacted in widly different ways to the tsunami catastrophe– and perhaps in greater variance than what might typically encountered in the published news.