Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Perceiving the Mumbai attacks


As we're all aware, Mumbai was victimized by some savage human behavior over the last week. The standoff was simultaneously gripping and painful to watch.

I was not glued to the couch or the internet all weekend, so I didn't not follow every single development as it unfolded. Rather, I checked in periodically. Five minutes here, twenty minutes there.

Is it inappropriate of me to suggest the US media coverage of Mumbai attacks was horrendous?

I haven't seen much discussion of this elsewhere.

I thought US coverage was dangerously sensational. I got the sense that they were reporting every last rumor they heard on the ground without getting any confirmation. I also sense a perverse enthusiasm for tying the attacks to the Pakistani government.

I know there are certain reasons this attack garnered so much attention compared to other terrorist attacks in the recent past but I'd just like to point out:

In 2004, Spain was rocked by an attack on a passenger train which killed 191 people and wounded an additional 1,775.

In 2006, attackers set off several bombs on a train in Mumbai, killing over 200 and wounding 700.

Since the start of our War in Iraq, attacks yielding similarly grisly death totals have occurred with tragic frequency.

In 2004, gunman killed over 1000 in Beslan, Russia, over the course of a three day standoff.

In Pakistan, an attack on Benazir Bhutto's motorcade, not long before her assassination, killed 140 and wounded several hundred.

Maybe I'm misremembering, and please correct me, but I do not recall media coverage for any of the above attacks being in the same ballpark as what we observed this past week. These recent Mumbai attacks yielded wall-to-wall live coverage on the cable news, including the preempting of late-night reruns of that prison lock down show they normally put on MSNBC.

There are a lot of reasons this recent attack resonated in the US. For one, its level of sophistication was out of the ordinary. Second, the attacks targeted cultural landmarks, the rich, and Westerners. Third, the attacks were drawn out over a few days.

There is some difference in the coverage of a bombing attack which is a singular brute event and an attack by gunmen, which requires a different breed of attacker and a more skillful police response.

We also know how volatile the region is, particularly when it became clear that Pakistan would have to provide some cooperation.

Nonetheless, I was still struck by how the attack made time stop for the US television media in the midst of a Presidential transition and a financial crisis. Someone I was talking to about this wondered if the Mumbia attacks garnered so much attention because it was a slow holiday news weekend. I considered this but it wouldn't explain why cable news networks would preempt previously scheduled programing. Nor does it make any sense given how the media has seemed to enjoy chewing over the 'team of rivals' thing. I could be wrong about that. Even my beloved Talking Points Memo unveiled the rarely used big headline format to announce the Mumbai attacks as the top story. I was surprised when I encountered this.

The other major thing I noticed was the brazen fashion in which many outlet reported on the attackers' "ties to Pakistan" when it was revealed that the attackers were from Pakistan. This observation may turn out to be moot, as there does seem to be some reasonable suspicions at this point. But I was really struck with the jump to conclusion. And yes, I am familiar with the US cable media.

Sorry that this has been a little disorganized. I don't have a thesis or a conclusion or anything. I'm just wondering if people perceived the coverage of the event similarly. I have come to expect sensational coverage of events out of the US media but I was surprised by the extent to which the Mumbai attacks dominated. Anybody else?

What am I missing?


This afternoon, NPR's Phillip Reeves delivered a great report from Mumbia that outlined the outrage of everyday Indians at their own government, not just for their response to these attacks, but for widespread failures. Protests are scheduled and word is spreading fast using the tools of new media.

It will be interesting to see how India's government responds to public pressures.

It is wise to be skeptical of India's actions during this crisis, including efforts to use the Pakistan boogieman to divert attention from homegrown shortcomings.


Anonymous said...

Firstly, you're definitely missing a letter in "Mumbai."

Secondly, those attacks did get coverage -- lots of it.

But the distinguishing thing about the Mumbai situation was that it went on... and on... and on. It took DAYS to completely resolve. So the media were still doing blow-by-blows and couldn't move on to the analysis and impact stories until it was all over. A single bomb blast is a very different animal.

E said...

oh word. bad spelling mistake. I'll fix it.

And you're right about the length of time it took to stabilize the situation. But I think back to the Beslan standoff in which hundreds of school children were killed over the course of several days and don't recall coverage anything like what we saw about Mumbai.

Maitri said...

My friend in Mumbai, a producer and professor of media, wrote this post raking the Indian media, too, over the coals for placing emphasis on TV Rating Points than conveying the news in a responsible manner. I blame it on the CNN-style, with minor-key theme music for each disaster/event and enough Armani suits to clothe a small nation, which has spilled over to other nations.

jeffrey said...

I don't know... I think the Beslan incident got comparable coverage.... but I am an old man with a hazy memory and a hangover so that could be wrong.

What's fun now will be the proliferation of articles and op-eds that ask, "Are our hotels safe?" and demand all sorts of bizarre measures to make public places "safer". Among these, no doubt, will be more intrusive surveillance of and drug testing of hospitality employees.

Anonymous Education Blogger said...

I missed all of the coverage but here's a link to an interesting discussion about coverage of Mumbai and other violent tragedies, and how American networks treat tragedies closer to home differently.


Anonymous Education Blogger said...

Hmmm. The link didn't work. Let's try it again.


Civitch said...

Beslan was very, very different - remote area, little media access, whereas Mumbai is a bustling international city in a country with very few limits on personal movement.

(Also, although over 1000 people were taken hostage in that atrocious event, I believe the final death toll was in the hundreds.)

But I agree completely that the coverage took on a carnival-meets-roadside accident tone. An event that was inherently dramatic was melodramaticized (if that's a word), and it would have been far more respectful, not to mention responsible, to have applied some standards as to what rumors got reported.

E said...

Maitri, that's a great point. A lot of the coverage from the US cable news was a regurgitated simulcast of NDTV or other Indian outlets.

Thank god we exported our news delivery style.

Leigh C. said...

Hell, I relied on Twitter more than anything else, though a number of Tweeters were only reporting what CNN-IBN and NDTV were spewing. It took some good reading to weed those out and focus on the people who were actually there and to those who were retweeting links to those people.

I learned with Gustav that CNN and its like are pretty much useless. I also learned that there are many more decent people out there just trying to get to the truth than there are those who would take any and all information at face value...at least, those people that are on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, what rumors were reported and later demonstrated to be false? I didn't see any of this, so I'm wondering what I missed.

E said...

Again, a lot of this is anecdotal, anon.

The rumor-mongering I'm talking about has to do with the on-the-ground reports of gunfire here or gunfire there. Or you'd hear that this many gunman had been captured only to hear a different number later.

I didn't take notes.

A lot of it did remind me of CNN's coverage during Gustav, as Leigh pointed out.

Leigh C. said...

Actually there were a couple of people on Twitter who tried to spread all sorts of crap about how Mossad was being called in on the counterattacks. Absolute crap, and most of the tweeters demanded instructions on how to get updates on the feeds WITHOUT having to read such misinformation and rumor-mongering.

alli said...

I was in the Netherlands when it all went down, so I couldn't be in front of the internet the entire time - all I had was CNN International and their coverage was terrible. At one point they switched to the feed from their Indian affiliate and they were giving details, and the anchors cut off the feed to tell us how "this proves that we should all be afraid." They were British and their intent was to scare people. It was so blatantly obvious that I was not going to get facts from their broadcast that I had to turn it off.

I've never seen such blatant fear-mongering from international news like that. I watched CNN International during Katrina, too, because I was in Vietnam, and it was nothing like this. This was blatant: Be Afraid. You're Next.