Issue #64, September 2003
Sure thing, I did it today, startin' to get hip to the lights out way. Lights out!
— Angry Samoans
Unless you were with Dick Cheney in his secret underground lair, or had your vision obscured by an impenetrable cloud of smog during the month of August, you probably noticed the massive blackout that hit the eastern seaboard several weeks ago. Perhaps you noticed the tens of thousands of people walking the streets of New York City, eager to get home after what could easily be qualified as a shitty day at work. Maybe you live within the Cleveland area and became acutely aware of how important clean drinking water really is. Or, like many others, you could have joined the chorus of news media and conservative politicians who utilized the event in order to scare everyone into believing that the blackout was an act of terrorism, or the fault of liberal energy laws that inhibit deregulation. Either way, lets all take a moment to be thankful that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell took to the sidelines during this one, and left the feminists, gay rights activists, punks, black people, hippies, atheists, and Teletubbies of the world free from blame.
During the first moments of the blackout, and in some cases right up until the end, there was an overwhelming sense of panic and suspicion that accompanied every broadcast on television. For a while, these sentiments were totally understandable, given the recent history of terrorism in NYC, and the fact that our president's administration has radicalized scores of individuals throughout the world who were once merely passive in their hatred of our neo-liberal, cowboy-infused policies. In addition, there were immediate concerns about water problems, transportation failures, and nobody seemed to know what caused it all. Make no mistake about: there were legitimate reasons for people to be concerned. However, after several hours of broadcast, it was obvious that the news media were inciting a level of paranoia about the situation that was clearly not within most people's best interests. Television personalities spent the better part of day one carelessly throwing around September 11th references — insinuations that pointed towards an act of terrorism, even after police and politicians assured the American public that such allegations were unfounded. This mode of suspicion was prevalent during the majority of newscasts that I watched and was heightened by the spooky theme music utilized by every major network as they segued to and from commercial breaks. You know what I'm talking about — that soft, creepy music that sounds across between the introductory ditty to NBC's Dateline and Darth Vader's jam in The Empire Strikes Back. The tone is serious and dramatic, laced with an inquisitive zing that makes people think they need to pay attention. Along with the carefully selected fonts on the screen that read Blackout, or Blackout 2003, the music served as an aural reminder that people should be terrified, even if it was only for a split second — before they were advertised soap, cellphones, and fast food.
But people weren't terrified, and that's one of the most telling things about this entire event. People didn't run down children with their cars, they didn't beat up old people, they didn't rob stores for Gatorade and cigarettes (though I wondered about some of my cronies in NYC), and there were no riots in the streets. While we should all be thankful about the way that people handled their collective business during the blackout, it's important to gain some critical perspective about several important themes and narratives that emerged from the weekend, given the fact that it was a major media and political event.
As I alluded to earlier, people in New York City are expected flip out at the drop of a hat . . . or at least that's the perception that many non-New Yorkers have of the people that reside there. Many people I know from small towns and rural areas of Pennsylvania are actually mortified of traveling to NYC. Part of their fear has to do with the staggering nature of the cityscape, but a great deal of their anxiety comes from potential dealings with the natives, in which they imagine themselves being honked at, yelled at, accosted by knife-wielding psychos, run over by hot dog vendors, or left for dead by a rambling taxi drivers. These fears are obviously not totally illegitimate because any foreign environment presents its own dangers for naïve travelers. Many of these ideas are predicated on the basis that NYC receives tons and tons of media attention, which is why any potentially tragic situation that confronts NYC — such as a massive power failure — becomes a huge news story. Despite the manner in which people helped out one another during the period surrounding 9/11, there is still an assumption in place that New Yorkers could lose it at any time.
In the case of the blackout, it's obvious why news coverage would focus so heavily upon NYC, as opposed to a city like Detroit; NYC is known for being the one of the biggest spectacles in the modern world, therefore the power failure caused a dramatic change in both the pace and scenery that was impossible to ignore. But the problem with such an intense focus upon the spectacle (or lack thereof) is that major news networks sent a clear message to their American viewers during a time of crises: NYC is the only city that matters. Now it's not as if ABC news got on the air and publicly said "Fuck Motown . . . and Cleveland too," but their coverage of other cities — along with other networks — seemed gratuitous at best. Even several weeks later, the blackout has now become tied exclusively to NYC, and it barely seems worth anyone's time to correct other people when they talk about the "NYC blackout." While this particular circumstance is not bound to change the manner in which the entire country thinks about news or potential tragedy, it demonstrates the power that major media sources have in their ability to frame specific events and locations.
In terms of the relationship between media and politics, the agenda-setting capacity of "big" media presents obstacles for people who try to make regional/state political issues accessible to a national audience. With the example of the blackout, the manner in which the national news covered the event left many television viewers with a skewed perception of just how many cities were affected, and how long it actually took to "remedy" the problem. Situations like these show us how it's difficult for certain states to draw attention to their needs if they are unable to have their agenda televised. Why should anyone bother to care about what goes on in the state of Illinois, or Colorado, or Massachusetts when they've only been trained to care about what goes on in NYC or Washington D.C?
It was also interesting to note how many politicians came out of the woodwork to comment on some aspect of the blackout, whether it was to address our energy problem in terms of national security, or to propose plans for drilling untapped oil reserves in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, school libraries, union headquarters, puppies, or the skulls of poor Mexican refugees (Cheney's idea). But within all the hollow pleas for increased safety and a "modernization of the grid" there was an absolute lack of discourse about alternative energy sources. Despite the all of the advancements in the last 100 years of alternative energy research — including major innovations in hydroelectric power, hydrogen power, bio-diesel, solar power, and gasoline/electric hybrid engines, political representatives of the American people acquiesced to the President's 19th century vision of progress, and didn't seize the opportunity to discuss the need for cleaner, more efficient, and safer forms of energy. God forbid anyone even mention the word conservation . . . that's goddamned hippie talk!
With few progressive politicians available to voice their concerns, the Bush camp utilized the blackout as a way to reinforce his current policies, which were previously written under heavily influence from oil and gas corporations. Ironically, Bush promoted his plan for increased oil production while he simultaneously emphasized the links between energy and safety. Perhaps he didn't take notice of the oil fires that burnt wildly in Iraq, or the recent pipeline crises outside of Phoenix. One doesn't have to be a scientist in order to realize the dangerous and fallible nature of long distance oil transportation, especially when such practices increase the chances for environmental pollution and sabotage. But it has been difficult to challenge the current administration on issues of safety because they have carefully crafted the discourse of safety within the rigid parameters of increased military power. In other words, safety has a specific connotation in the administration's language, and unfortunately, alternative energy sources do not factor into that equation — despite the fact that alternative energy can decrease pollution (which makes the environment safer), decrease our reliance on the middle east's oil reserves (which makes the world safer), and decrease our reliance on nuclear power (which prevents the possibility of catastrophic sabotage or accidents).
President Bush's vacuous diatribe about the need to "modernize the grid" demonstrates an implicit faith in two important myths: (1) our current forms of technology are okay — they just need to be tweaked here and there, and (2) technology will ultimately prevail. Given the lack of critical perspectives voiced after the blackout, I think it's reasonable to assume that these myths are firmly engrained in people's collective unconscious. In order to examine some of the ways in which these myths are perpetuated, I would like to return to my example par excellence, the national news.
Although there were technical difficulties caused by the power failure in New York, the mass media still managed to provide a vomit-inducing quantity of blackout coverage. In fact, many of the newscasts emphasized the difficulties involved in transmission, and reminded viewers that their respective networks would remain resolute in their efforts to bring people "up to the minute" coverage. News anchors and reporters couldn't make enough references to the trials and tribulations that they faced throughout the day. Some of them probably had to go live without makeup . . . oh, the horror! Devotion to the story is a good theme for news corporations to play up because it increases ratings, builds viewer loyalty, and generally give people faith in the outlet as a whole. The overarching story the news tells about itself is that it cares about "the people" — they'll bring us the story even if they have to get MacGyver and the Professor from Gilligan's Island to rig up a giant foil antenna and extend it from a dilapidated squat in the lower east side.
Aside from being shamelessly self-promotional, these sort of against-all-odds broadcasts sell people on the idea that media technologies have an inherent resiliency and tuffness (yeah that's right: "tough" with an F, cuz it's extra tuff) that can even withstand a massive power failure. The implied message sent by the newscast is essentially this: if you can see this newscast, have faith in the news and the technologies that brought it to you. Ironically, this sort of faith in technology is one of the underlying reasons why there was such a lack of discourse about revamping or overhauling the grid, instead of merely modernizing it. Faith in technology also prompts us to place blame on individuals, rather than machines or designs. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we were so quick to look for terrorists at the root of the problem.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the stories told throughout the blackout, it's that we need to have less faith in the notion that technology will always weather the storm. This doesn't mean that people need to take the uber-anarchist approach to technology where they secretly plot the destruction of all machines. But it does mean that citizens — especially politicians — should be engaged in open dialogue about what types of technologies are being utilized in the United States, and how they can better serve people. If any real progress is to be made, individuals on both the left and the right must find common ground on issues of technology and energy, especially when it comes to efficiency, safety, longevity, and sustainability. When it really comes down to it, the only people that benefit from the pollution and inefficiency (in terms of both economics and productivity) of our "modern" energy infrastructure are giant corporations — entities that have used money and political influence to convince people that things have to be this way. As citizens, taxpayers, voters, and human beings, we are collectively being cheated out of ways to make energy cheaper, cleaner, more efficient, and safer. And that must change.
So speak up, speak out, and keep some extra candles around your house. I'll see you during the next blackout.
Zack Furness is a graduate student in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team, and a shameless promoter of his band, Voice in the Wire. He firmly believes that George Bush Jr. has never read the Lorax, and that could, in fact, be the root of his problem.
Credits: NYC skyline image copyright ©2003 Allen Tannenbaum. Windmill image from wintricity.com. Eyes image from flakmag.com