By Frank Moher
I followed Hurricane Gustav not on CNN, not on the newspaper websites (and certainly not on the newspapers themselves), but via Twitter. What, you may ask, is Twitter? Twitter is a service that allows you to post messages to the web of up to 140 characters. Initially the idea was to tell the world, or at least anyone who was bothering to follow you, what you were up to at that moment — kind of like Facebook status updates writ large. But given the general insipidness of the idea that anyone would really care what you were up to at that moment, “tweets” (as posts to Twitter are called) quickly evolved to incorporate political comment, social observation, recommended links, and . . . a lotta messages about what people were up to at that moment.
At any rate, Twitter came into its own over the last few days, as various New Orleanians who’d chosen not to evacuate their city used it to report, not on what they were doing, but what was being done to them. Their dispatches had the same sort of punch that Edward R. Murrow’s reports from bombed-out London must once have had, and without the attendant propaganda.
In fact, it was the lack of melodrama and hype that distinguished Twitter’s citizen-reporting from that of the cable news networks. By early Monday morning, I was able to go to bed reasonably assured that Gustav was no Katrina. The messages from Twitterers started portentously enough: “The wind outside is ROARING outside my house now. VERY loud,” wrote emmaleigh3 at about the time the hurricane reached land. Tweeted kareng: “Power out wind picking up my friend who I am staying with just paid his flood onsurance [sic] over the phone.”
But about the same time, Caderoux was reporting “News on surge? — predictions look better compared to Katrina/Rita.” And just an hour after her friend paid up his flood insurance, kareng was sending more reassuring signals: “sun is coming up listening to Garland and drinking coffee.”
It’s true these people were themselves getting much of their information, beyond their five senses, from TV (though mostly from local TV; CNN and MSNBC were roundly derided by NOLA Twitterers as simply inept). And we shouldn’t forget that a lot of lives have been heavily disrupted in areas west and north of New Orleans. But it was instructive to note that, by Monday afternoon, CNN was still bannering its reports with haymaking slogans like “Gustav: Death, Danger, Destruction.” We expect this sort of nonsense from Fox News. Apparently we should also now expect it from CNN.
You’ll have to get yourself a Twitter account — free — to follow the next big story, whatever it may be. More to the point, if you find yourself in the midst of the next big story, get yourself a Twitter acount. Given the currently degraded state of TV news reporting, at least in the States, the rest of us are going to have to pick up the slack.
A footnote: I believe I have made journalistic history with this blog post. Back in the ’40s, Time magazine coined the backwards locution “Says So-and-so,” as in “Says Smith: ‘I don’t like them damn Democrats,'” or “Says Dewey: ‘Truman is toast.'” It is an item of journalese my students still find peculiar, with good reason. Nevertheless, I have in this post used the phrase “Tweeted kareng,” thus bringing Henry Luce’s insults to the language into the 21st-century.