For the world, Saturday, February 22 was a day of historic significance — a day when the government of a nation of 46 million, part of the developed world, was toppled by a revolution. Defying the arrangements of Western diplomats, who are always anxious to impose security, the people of Ukraine took possession of their capital and its citadels of power. Parliament turned on the president. The police deserted him. The army deserted him. He fled toward the border, leaving his Russian allies to determine whether they would try to reinstall his regime in a rump Ukraine of native Russian speakers. There is a chance that might happen; after all, Russophone Ukraine is merely a construct of Soviet dictators who did not care who was part of what province, so long as all were obedient to them.
We will see. In the meantime, what television audience, what television crew, could resist the spectacle? Multitudes in Kiev’s enormous central square, welcoming the archenemy of the ousted president, suddenly liberated from prison, who addressed them from her wheelchair by the light of flaring torches, on the ground where, only days before, protestors had been shot and burned alive on the barricades. Who could resist these scenes as they exploded?
The answer is: the American “news” media.
For Yahoo! News, the big stories were the popularity of hoodies in Sochi and the recapture of a “drug kingpin” in Mexico. For the more sober Google News, they were the kingpin and many other things — Ukraine was way down the list, and no effort was made to separate new stories from ones warmed over. For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases from the staffs of American politicians, out on the golf links.
For CNN (“we bring you the world”), the big stories, oft repeated, were a gay football player who remains a gay football player; a racial complaint in Mississippi; how to lose weight; replays of video footage, thought to be “viral,” about a child who might have been injured but wasn’t; and a variety of other non-news features. For Fox News, the stories were the chronic errors of President Obama, a US win at the Olympics (over 20 years ago), how to look good, and a variety of other non-news features. Both cable news networks had correspondents stationed in Kiev, but they were summoned to the camera about as often as brothers-in-law are requested to receive excess funds. After all, there wasn’t room for them, what with all the “news” that’s prearranged for weekends. When the news anchors tried to ask them questions, it immediately became obvious that the anchors had no more idea than a rabbit of what to ask. In the case of CNN, it was apparent that neither the anchor nor her producers had the least conception of what a Ukraine might be.
For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases.
As the day wore on, Fox became visibly nervous about its reputation. It dragged in a moth-eaten diplomat who vexed even the anchor with his astonishingly empty statements. Hours later, they found, of all people, Susan Estrich, who made an excellent try at saying what the historical significance and prospects of the events in Ukraine might be. The anchor clearly had no grasp of what was going on, but she was happy Susan showed up. And she was right to be.
Now, what does this all mean? It means that the gross errors and omissions of the American media cannot all be attributed to political cunning, or any cunning at all. Many of them can be ascribed to the simple fact that there are people in this business — many people — who resemble the stupid old editor whom Orson Welles’ character in Citizen Kane fires at the start of his newspaper career. He fires him because the old guy says that his paper is practically closed during a lot of the day. Kane tells him that the news happens 24 hours a day (and on weekends). To let the news be shaped by the fact that you weren’t expecting news to happen on the weekend . . . well, what kind of journalist are you?
And what kind of journalist are you if you lack any sense of drama? Not to mention any knowledge of geography. Because the loss of Ukraine blows a hole through the Russian empire.
What seems to be required in today’s newsrooms isn’t knowledge or a sense of drama but a sensitivity for the drab. Who won the hockey game. Who won the lottery. Who’s complaining that his neighbors don’t like him. Whose child is obese. Whose child is not obese. The big things. The important things.