Shake-Up: Where Earthquakes and Media Policy Collide

I grew up in California, spent most of my life there and experienced many earthquakes, including the deadly 6.9 Loma Prieta quake of 1989. So the 5.8 earthquake that rattled Washington, D.C., Tuesday was not (you’ll pardon the pun) as earth-shaking for me as it was for many people who felt the ground beneath them move in ways utterly new and foreign.

Nevertheless, the way my 8th-floor office swayed for an uncomfortably long time confirmed for me that this was not a minor event and — having been a TV news producer and having a good idea how this would play out on cable news — I needed to let key people in my life know that I was okay.

This was no small task. Like about one-fourth of the U.S. population, I am a mobile-phone-only customer. Away from the office, my handset is my only telephonic connection to the outside world.  That is not an insignificant concern given that my wife, a university professor, lives more than 500 miles away in southwestern Ontario.

After a few fruitless efforts to get a call through to her, I was able to send a text letting her know that I was fine and asking her to let friends and family know that as well. Which she then did, via her Facebook page.  Such is the miracle of the age of communications in which we live.

It occurs to me that a lot of media issues are implicated in this little tale of what happened to me during and after the Great D.C. Quake of 2011.

I’m a (reluctant) AT&T customer, seduced by the elegance and power of the iPhone long before Verizon got its version earlier this year. So not being able to place a phone call, despite a troublingly high monthly bill, was no more novel to me than a midsize earthquake. (Not that we can blame the carriers entirely for the overwhelmed system; hundreds of thousands of people had the same urge at the same time to reach out to their loved ones.)

I was able to squeeze a text through the clogged system because such messages use a miniscule amount of data, compared to anything else a smartphone can do. I’m fortunate to have a grandfathered-in text plan, so for the remainder of my two-year contract, I’ll be able to send those texts for one relatively small monthly fee (though it's still a ripoff). New AT&T customers, for whom low-cost, truly unlimited plans are an artifact of the past like lawn darts or a competitive wireless market, are not as lucky. AT&T’s new pricing scheme leaves them a choice between $20 per month for unlimited texts or a pay-as-you-go $0.20 per text rate. TIME figures 20 cents amounts to a 6500-percent surcharge per text. Gizmodo did the math on an all-bits-are-of-equal-value basis, and concluded that this is actually a 10 million percent markup.

As I walked home across D.C., I saw TV satellite trucks dotting the Capitol Mall and knew this was a problem in the making. Walking past a reporter speaking about the “chaos” on the Mall (read: people milling about and trying to figure out the best way to get where they needed to be), I received a text from a friend saying that FOX News had reported that the Washington Monument “might be leaning.” Looking in the direction of the monument to check this assertion, as a conscientious reporter might do, I assured her that it was not. And so the problem had already begun.

As a recovering TV journalist, I can tell you that TV news does nothing quite so well as hysteria — it attracts eyeballs and eyeballs attract advertisers. Ratcheting up hype is a moneymaker, and the media really, really like making money. Still, one would hope that given its recent windfall of advertising dollars, TV news could occasionally refrain from making a minor emergency worse by exaggerating its impact.

Thankfully, some broadcasters are seeing that a large chunk of the population prefers real news to hype, and are starting to invest in investigative journalism. Unfortunately, others are skirting FCC rules and consolidating newsrooms, giving viewers less news for the same price, and pocketing the difference. That may not seem like a concern to some folks, but if your loved ones were in an emergency situation, wouldn’t you want a choice between a reporter flailing her arms about the “chaos in the streets” and one giving a sober report about emergency response?

We can get more of the latter and less of the former by being better media consumers. Thanks to the open Internet (and let’s hope it stays that way, despite corporate attempts to hijack your online freedom), we have a variety of news resources available to us. Some very high quality reporting and opinion has come of it, if you’re mindful of separating wheat from chaff. If you’re also mindful to reward the producers of the quality stuff, they’re likely to do more for the public good.

Meanwhile, outside my blessedly not-swaying 8th-floor office window, Washington is back at work, and industry lobbyists and corporate lackeys are back at the trough, pushing legislation, regulation and favors that pad their wallets at the expense of the public good. Unfortunately, the shake-up we had Tuesday is not the kind of shake-up we need.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good