1989 Earthquake Reporting: A Critique

Primary Source

Peter Berg Interviews Jerry Mander about the Media and the Loma Prieta Earthquake of October 17, 1989 in San Francisco

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PB- Everyone I know agrees that the media vastly sensationalized our last earthquake to the degree that both people here and in other places thought San Francisco was in ruins even though the testimony and the sense was that only 2% of the area of the city was struck— maximum... So what happened? What was the media doing? How did this occur? I've gotten letters from Africa saying "I hope you're all right!"

JM- I think there are several factors, some of them are intrinsic to the medium and to the media. The medium of television in particular because that's how it got broadcast around the world, and to the media in general also. But there are particular circumstances I think in this case—such as the (baseball) World Series being played here in San Francisco… Everyone was here—the Goodyear Blimp was hovering over the stadium just at that moment and then it went and hovered all over San Francisco and zeroed in on the spots... The cameras were already on the game; there were 62,000 people in the stands and presumably there must have been 100-120 million people watching—worldwide... For the media it's just an opportunity—it's what they always wait for. They wait for the event where they become an intrinsic part of the process... It's a very very hot moment for them and they've got everyone there already—they don't have to announce it or advertise it or anything. Then they step up to the moment and enact grandness.

PB- So maybe one of the things they had to work with was the history of SF right? The earthquake of 1906... this tremor worked into a pattern about American History?

JM- Yes, it's the unconscious reservoir of American expectation. All television is a series of prescripted events—you just fit the details of the event into the situation. Ronald Reagan himself was a replay in many ways of previous archetypal imagery that existed within people based on the movies of the '40s and '50s and television of the '50s and '60s.... The SF earthquake itself had the power o f archetype. There was the expectation. People were waiting for it to happen, were wondering when it would happen, and then they are watching television and it happens—so it has a lot—of great story interest.

PB- ...There was a vast discrepancy between the actual personal experiences people had, which were made to seem trivial by the media and those major experiences… does the media somehow invalidate people's real experiences and trivialize those experiences so that media presented material seems to be greater—is that part of it?

JM- Well it does do that, 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 on television is for me to say that it was probably the biggest, most profound experience with the earth that I'd ever had before and I didn't even know it at the time because when it happened to me I was lying in bed at home taking a nap. The house shook, I jumped out of bed and it was almost fun actually. I mean, when I realized the house was going to make it, it was a ride. I looked out into the street and everything seemed fine. Where I live there was not so much as a glass knocked over and everyone was calm. Then the power went off and you knew something was going on. It was then that I put on a portable radio and began to hear about destruction... for many people I know, who had no damage, and who were not in any danger, this earthquake has carried over as a big experience. They discuss, they talk about it. I think it was a profound interaction with nature that you don't find anywhere in the media reports—ever.

PB- Why isn't it ever covered by television or the media?

JM- Because for television, that is a talking head... it's too spiritual you might say. It's too paganistic, too nature-based for television to want to encourage or even pick up on its nuances. And yet I think if you could ask this question of most San Franciscans... "What was you're relationship to nature during that earthquake? Did you think of the planet? What profound things happened to you besides fear?"—people would speak about the planet... If it had been handled in the media at all, by anybody, by one person—people could have noted that and brought the experience into consciousness.

PB- ...One woman said that after the earthquake she spent three days watching television while holding on to the sofa. I wanted to say to her “you know, it was television that was scaring you.” So what is that? Where do we live that the media takes over this horror show that doesn’t relate to people’s lives—or at least 98% of their lives?

JM- I think the networks are involved in a process that they don't themselves realize has the kind of implications that you're describing. They concentrate on the dangers because that gets people frightened and involved and wanting to watch. It makes for more viewership and increases the importance of television in people's lives.... Anybody in television wants that to happen... The second part of it that I think is very interesting and subtle is the degree to which television description of events and the television images of the one or two areas that were devastated overpowered people's personal experience of the event. This is an important thing to realize because when you read Moby Dick, for example, and then you see the film of Moby Dick, Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab wipes out the Captain Ahab that you imagined beforehand.

PB- ... How much bigger could the earthquake seem to be to the media?...It looked to me that there wasn't any juice left if it had been a 9!

JM- They played it out max... they probably couldn't give it more if it was a 9. They could stay longer though—there would be more fires, more buildings down, more suffering. In such a case there may be more widespread suffering to show. All the anchors flew to SF, they all camped in front of the falling down freeway, they got every piece of juice out of it they could possibly get... They were just playing on "earthquake in SF." —replaying the unconscious expectation. It would have been the same if it had been an attempted assassination of Gorbachev. Television is a series—it seeks to have spectacular events.

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PB- In Oakland when the freeway fell down, within the first hour of its occurring, local black people were going into the ruins to try to find people to help them and the Oakland Police and the highway patrol forced them back with drawn guns. Some people assumed that because they were Black, they were looting. I wondered whether you thought the media represented this enough—made a story out of this.

JM- I never heard that in the media, did you?

PB- I only heard it from people who were there.

JM- Yes, so that's another important piece. It reveals racism on the part of the media. It's that the media finds it plausible, understandable that the police would take that position. The reason they find it understandable is that they identify with the police in that situation. There's another piece I want to make sure we talk about that is also about racism I think—which is that a few days after the SF earthquake, they had an earthquake in China which was 8. something... 150,000 people were homeless and quite a few hundred were killed. There have been several earthquakes just before this one and just after that involving "Third World" nations... But they're not playing these other earthquakes very well at all compared to the SF quake...

PB- Because this is "White U.S.?"

JM- Well I guess because it's us.

PB- Since the earthquake, there have been a number of beneficial outcomes—for example transportation. We hear on the radio the mayor's saying "anyone who is a single passenger in an automobile is regionally irresponsible"—which we never heard before. There are sign-up boards for executives and secretaries who would like to ride share at the Transamerica building; there are corporate van pools for the first time.

JM- Not to mention ferries back in operation—lots of ferries, and with more runs. And the BART is operating more efficiently and with more ridership—that's great.

PB- Here's what concerns me... the media, because it's got the crisis story going, doesn't want to report any of this as beneficial—and there are a number of beneficial outcomes, not just transportation... it's beneficial not to be linked up all around the Bay for a little while—that's a little self-sustainable.

JM- Well... with the Bay Bridge closed, you realize how it would change your consciousness to not have that link—that the local aspects of the region would be emphasized. It encourages self-sufficiency and localism. They don't report that, and they don't report these beneficial things because the news is the devastation, then the money (how to get funds to solve people's problems), then the political fallout (which politicians did well and which politicians didn't do well—whose fault), then the retributions and lawsuits and then there will be a little bit about transportation and planning—at least in terms of designing freeways.

PB- I got a letter from Mexico today—it said "our earthquake in Mexico City was really an opportunity for a lot of beneficial changes to occur"... The people who lived in Mexico City realized they didn't have anything to do with the government. It didn't do anything for almost a month after the earthquake, so the people directed traffic, dug in the ruins, helped each other in the barrios—those people were neighbors. People forgot that the PRI ran the country, or they said “Hey, let’s be realistic, we can’t expect anything from them.” One of the outcomes of that is that Cardenas actually won the last election—it was stolen from him. He beat the PRI and the Mexico City earthquake was one of the reasons... One huge barrio called Tepito, at about 1 million people, has actually dropped out of the municipal government and begun a newspaper and clinics: So there's been a number of beneficial outcomes,·and I would like to see those proceed here, but I'm afraid the media has sandbagged us and already put our feet in clay so that it's hard for us to move. What would you say about this as a recognized authority on the power of television? How can we overcome the crisis mentality that the media has produced about this?

JM- Well the reality of people's situation here is the same. I think that this perception of the media has been discovered. When you came in you said everybody you know in SF is aware of the fact that the media sensationalized it beyond all reality. I think people have become aware of that fact and maybe that will teach them something about the media... The crisis atmosphere will subside on its own. It's the old story—you have to be involved and conscious of what's actually happening where you are. To the extent that I've been involved in public events which were covered by television, the coverage is always invariably not close to what happened. The best thing it can be is an approximate summation—which is not a violation of what happened, but people think it's reality because they see pictures. That's the astounding and terrible thing. Because television is sending us information in pictures of fires, then you automatically assume that seeing is believing and make the extrapolation that it's the whole city.

PB- It seems that there is a political goal relative to public information that people in general might develop—a political agenda that might start insisting on something relative to what the media says happens to them.

JM- What happens is they are experiencing a thing. A camera comes by and describes an experience as theirs which is not, plays it back to them and convinces them their authentic experience was not the experience they had—that they had some other experience. This is colonization of the mind in a real active form. It's also channelization of the mind, and the result is that people lose confidence in themselves. I think that's where you started today—they lose confidence in their own perception of what just happened to them.

PB- One more question. If people like myself, or people that are deeply involved with ecology and ideas about the earth, wanted to say that there were beneficial aspects to this earthquake and we wanted to convey that to people, what sort of medium should we use to do it? Should it be an open letter for which signatures were solicited?

JM- That's an interesting question. Perhaps there should be a testimonial rally called "What Was Good About the Earthquake," in which people would just get up and say what they thought was good about what happened to them at the time. A guy just said "It meant something to me in terms of my contact with the earth." Other people may have gotten to know the neighbors they didn't know before—had a communal dinner by candlelight. I think the letter would be very good. I don't know what kind of impact it would have, but it would certainly be a positive experience for the people signing it, and I think it would be useful to other people like-minded.

  • Jerry Mander is associated with the Public Media Center in San Francisco and is the author of the book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

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All newspaper page images courtesy San Francisco Public Library, digital elibrary.