When the Earth shook San Francisco and environs on October 17, 1989, TV treated us to lingering shots of the collapsed Nimitz Freeway, Bay Bridge, and burning buildings. But the mainstream media missed two very significant stories: the devastation to poorer areas like Watsonville, CA, where migrant farm workers and their families – often living six to a room – were left homeless; and the positive effect that the earthquake had on many people in the Bay Area. It literally shook them up and made them reevaluate key aspects of their lives. One hears (by the grapevine) stories of families reunited, new friendships formed, communities bonded together.
Here Peter Berg, a leader in the bioregional movement, interviews Jerry Mander, the author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, about media coverage of the Earthquake of ’89. Excerpted and condensed from "Planet Drum Pulse," published by the Planet Drum Foundation, PO Box 31251, San Francisco, CA, Shasta Bioregion. Mari Dolcini transcribed the original interview.
Peter Berg: Everyone I know agrees that the media vastly sensationalized our last earthquake. People here and in other places thought San Francisco was in ruins, even though only 2% of the city was struck. How did this occur?
Jerry Mander: There are several factors, some of them intrinsic to the media and to the medium of television in particular. But there are particular circumstances in this case. The World Series was being played in San Francisco, so everyone was here – the Goodyear Blimp, the cameras, 62,000 people in the stands, and presumably 100-120 million people watching world wide. It’s what the media wait for – a very, very hot moment, and they’ve got everyone there already. They don’t have to announce it or advertise it. Then they step up to the moment and enact grandness.
PB: There was a vast discrepancy between the actual personal experiences people had, which were made to seem trivial, and those major experiences [focused on by the media]. Does the media do that to make the media material seem greater?
JM: It does, but the media has yet to point out [three weeks after the earthquake] what the earthquake did that was amazingly wonderful for human consciousness in this area. Fire, things falling down – that works on television very well. What doesn’t work is for me to say that it was probably the biggest, most profound experience with the earth that I’d ever had. It was almost fun actually. When I realized the house was going to make it, it was a ride. Where I live there was not so much as a glass knocked over, and everyone was calm.
For many people I know, who had no damage and were not in any danger, this earthquake has carried over as a big experience. It was a profound interaction with nature that you don’t find anywhere in the media reports, ever.
PB: Why isn’t it covered by television or the media?
JM: Because it’s a talking head. And it’s too spiritual, too paganistic, too nature-based for television to want to encourage or to even pick up on its nuances. And yet if you could ask most San Franciscans, "What profound things happened to you besides fear,"people would speak about the planet. If that had been handled in the media at all, by even one person, people could have noted it and brought the experience into consciousness.