Friday, August 15, 2003

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Chaos or cooperation? The world judges

Following up on my previous post:

The international press seems bound and determined to ignore the absence of disorderly conduct during the blackout. Take a look at this list of blackout headlines. Notice how prevalent the word "chaos" is in foreign coverage of the event? It's not just the BBC -- Sky News and Channel News Asia, , and the Financial Times as well.

In fact, if you enter the relevant search terms into Google, you discover the dominance of that word in foreign coverage. When it appears in domestic coverage, it's used only for contrast, as in:

"New Yorkers Take Chaos in Stride"

"Cooperation prevailed over chaos on darkened city streets."


UPDATE: Maybe the divide is confined to print media. James Lileks suggests that American television was equally eager for chaos:

The Fox news guy was outside Penn Station, where thousands of people were - brace yourself - patiently waiting for electricity to return. He seemed a little annoyed that there wasn’t a brawl or a riot....

I almost wondered if the reporters wanted this to be 9/11 lite, all the mass inconvenience with only half the panic. As far as I can tell, the big story was the outage, but the other story was "so, they dealt with it." You can't wonder if a TV producer was looking at the feeds, seeing the people just walking along, the cars waiting their turns, and the producer's thinking: God help me for this, but woudl someone please throw a brick? We're dyin' here. (emphasis in original)

posted by Dan on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM


I don't think it's true that _all_ the world press is reporting chaos where there is none. Take this quote from Le Monde today, in the main article linked to on their front page about the outage:

"A moins d'un mois du deuxième anniversaire des attentats du 11 septembre 2001, le souvenir de ces sombres journées est revenu à l'esprit de nombreux New-Yorkais, mais aucune scène de panique n'a été rapportée."

For those of you who don't speak French, the translation is roughly,

"Almost a month away from the 2nd anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks, the memory of those somber days weighs on the spirits of many New Yorkers, but no scenes of panic have been reported."

In other words, fairly early on in the article, they point out the lack of chaos... and then they go on to speculate about causes, effects, etc.

posted by: arthegall on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Hmm, I don't know. Looking at BBCNews' website feature, for example, which is titled "In Pictures: Blackout Chaos," it seems they mean to take chaos as simply meaning confusion and (obvious) lack of expected operations.

You can argue over what the word "chaos" implies, but it seems that at least the BBC's coverage, taken as a whole, is reasonably accurate — confusion but little panic.

posted by: kormal on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Hmmm...chaos is defined in the dictionary as

1: a state of extreme confusion and disorder

I don't think using the word in this instance is "sexing up" the story, although a more uplifting headline would read

"New Yorkers Pull Together Despite Chaos"

The word Chaos doesn't imply violence or looting, IMO.

posted by: HotBrownSandwich on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

All those New Yorkers didn't riot or loot...shucks you don't make America bashing easy do you?

posted by: Ral on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

So CHAOS is another one of those media words that makes the story more dramatic and eye catching. We all assume that it implys a scene out of Revelations or the End of the World, but really they're just saying "people were surprised and confused by the lack of response from their light switches" in more emphatic language.

posted by: Foxtrax on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Based on what I have seen, there has been little to no chaos, extreme confusion, or disorder associated with this blackout. Other than to say something along the lines of "despite blackout, no chaos," there really is no legitimate use of the term here.

I wouldn't be surprised to read that the crime rate in NYC was actually lower last night than on a typical summer night. Anyone seen any comparisons?

posted by: R.C. Dean on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Just on the phone to my mum and she tells me that the BBC is also saying that the BBC is reporting that the amerikans are blaming it all on the Canadians

posted by: Giles on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Flooding the zone on our blackout certainly does pry attention away from 2,000 dead in Paris. Or, for domestic media, it heats up the stuttering MAYHEMHAVOCFIREMURDER candidate that was the "Blaster" virus.

posted by: Michael Ubaldi on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

It's true that the dictionary definition of "chaos" doesn't automatically translate into violence --though it is evocative of it. Furthermore, if this case is typical, it seems there was very little confusion-style chaos either.

What I'm more curious about is the domestic/international split on the the reactions to the blackout, which does seem to exist.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

The German papers I've glanced at seemed pretty calm, even the tabloids. Not so the Frankfurter Rundschau is a leftie daily. Here are the headlines and lede, with translation following:

Stromausfall lähmt Nordamerikas Städte

Chaos in Metropolen Kanadas und der USA / New Yorks Bürgermeister: Kein Terroranschlag

Ein stundenlanger Stromausfall hat am Donnerstag mehrere Großstädte im Nordosten der USA und im benachbarten Kanada ins Chaos gestürzt.

Power outages cripple North Amerian cities

Chaos in metropolitan Canada and the United States

New York's Mayor: No terrorist attack

A power outage lasting many hours plunged numerous big cities in northeastern U.S. and neighboring Canada into chaos Thursday.

posted by: carter on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

I see that you are not merely contrasting foreign press coverage with events on the ground. You are also contrasting the relative order of this blackout compared with other blackouts.

These are two separate subjects. I'm betting you have some ideas about the latter (the "Why no looting this time?" question). You hint at it in the earlier post, but I'm not up with my Fukuyama.

Could our society be in an objectively different state now than in the 1960's?

Welcome to my blogroll, BTW.

posted by: Mike Smith on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Not everyone in the media missed what I think was the big story within the big story: cooperation. If anything good can be said to have come from the 9/11 tragedy, I think it is a new spirit of cooperation. Pat Robertson's show opened with that observation this morning.

Of course it remains to be seen if it will last.

posted by: Theodopoulos Pherecydes on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Reports on the blackout in Germany's "Der Spiegel" were the usual mix of anal America bashing and left wing slant. The headline bit:

"Power Grid as in the Third World.
There is still confusion about what triggered the blackout, but the deeper causes are clear. The electricity infrastructure of the superpower is hopelessly obsolete. Corporations obsessed with profit allowed the system to deteriorate; a brutal deregulation and the Enron scandal hindered investment. Experts reckon with further dramatic blackouts."

It's a good thing no one notices them, because they write the same stuff day after day. They're obsessed with the evils of the U.S. This didn't start with Bush. It was already in full swing shortly after the end of the cold war. I don't read French, but it's hard to believe that the anti-American slant there could approach the levels you see every day on the "Spiegel" website.

posted by: Doug Drake on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

So, it seems that CHAOS is behind the outages, huh? Where's Maxwell Smart when we need him?

posted by: J. Crowell on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Intersting comments, certainly a diverse group. As a first-hand experience in a car, you do not EVER want to try to enter NYC during a blackout. I left my house in Scranton, PA at 4p.m. and got to LaGuardia at 10P>M to find my flight cancelled. The my alternate was cancelled. My only daughter is getting marruied tomorrow, and I am stuck at the airport, hoping that I get ther by 4p.m. tomorrow. However, the Yankees I am dealing with are here are actually NICER with the power out. It is like we sent them all to church. Incredible.

posted by: markman on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

You know?....The eastern atlantic power outage is peanuts compaired to what the Iraqis go thru everyday.

posted by: LINDA on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

That's true (about Iraq), and that's why fixing their electrical system is very serious business. If we do it, it's worth an army division to us. If we don't, they're going to hate us.

We need to get it done. I know there are saboteurs, but we still need to get it done.

posted by: Mike Smith on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

President Bush never switched NYC's power (or water, or natural gas) off just because he didn't approve of the city's actions.
If Joe Six-Cup-of-Tea Iraqi isn't already better off utility-wise than he was under Saddam, he will be soon.

posted by: parking_god on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

Today's BBC broadcast on NPR included a priceless interview with the Metro editor (?) of the NYTimes--this is my recollection of what was broadcast:

BBC arsehole [condescending, bemused tone] asks whether it can really be true that New Yorkers aren't looting as they did during the blackout twenty-six years ago. NYT editor responds that the city has changed radically since then, and is now actually a very pleasant and safe place to live.

BBC arsehole harrumphs and says, "Honestly, Jonathan, tell us what's going on [shades of Gilligan's denials of Pentagon reports to have taken Baghdad airport]. Can you walk across Central Park after dark without fear?"

NYT editor says, "Yes, in fact the crime records have always indicated that the Park is actually one of the saest precincts in NYC..."

BBC arsehole snickers, harrumphs again, tries to sneer at this impudent refution of what everyone in the better parts of London knows to be true about New York, and closes with the ironic comment, "Fair enough...."

Folks, remember: US capitalism is in crisis and cannot survive. Chaos and despair haunt the American dream. New York must die, and California must sink. Trust the BBC: if they hadn't believed it, they wouldn't have seen it with their own eyes.

posted by: tombo on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

I'm curious what the Euros make of those shots of citizens directing traffic. For us, it's, "Sure, someone jumped in and picked up the ball. The cops can't be everywhere." For them, I'm sure the reaction is, "My God, the situation is so chaotic that CITIZENS ARE DIRECTING TRAFFIC! Where are the proper authorities? It is a state of anarchy!"

That's why I believe that nobody is better in an emergency than an American - flexibility, initiative and improvisation are in the blood.

When it comes to long-range planning, however...

posted by: Dave S on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

As a New Yorker who happened to be stuck in an elevator when the power outtage took place, I can verify that there was no sense of chaos during this blackout. We thought out the problem calmly, and got ourselves extricated.

Walking home to Brooklyn from midtown Manhattan was quite an event. Though crowded, the streets were not chaotic, and certainly not panic-stricken. Everyone knew what they had to do. Once people got home, they wisely stocked up on supplies from local stores. And then they went to listen to the news on the streets from those with transistor radios. And, of course, to party and drink.

posted by: Mark N. on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

as for the blackout in 1977, remember that it came during one of the hottest summers on record, day after day of the new york summer trinity of hazy hot humid, and it was the summer david berkowitz decided he had to go kill people. generally i dont like spike lee movies;if he portrayed blacks the way he portrayed italians in summer of sam the cowflop would have hit the fan in very short order; but in summer of sam he did catch the crazy feel of that summer. every one was on edge that year, pushed to the edge by the unending heat and the news about the most recent killings and when the blackout happened people just went nuts.

posted by: akaky on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

The press in India mentioned the calm and co-operative attitude of the Americans, New Yorkers in particular, many times. The impression we received here was of a situation which was potentially delicate and dangerous; and of citizens who were dignified and decent enough to see it through calmly.

posted by: Ritu on 08.15.03 at 01:42 PM [permalink]

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