TV’s powerful images from Japan and the Mideast

This is white-knuckle television. For several weeks (though it seems like forever) a crush of news has left us slack-jawed in astonishment, horrified, heartsick and alarmed at what might come next.

There are uprisings across the Mideast, with bloody consequences.

There’s the wrath of Mother Nature wrought in dreadful terms upon Japan, where the cruel aftermath includes an engineering nightmare whose scale no one can predict.

We’re whipsawed between grief for distant people we don’t know and concern for our own personal welfare, as we wonder how the world’s trouble spots will affect U.S. security, and as we worry about our own vulnerability to tsunamis, earthquakes and radiation poisoning.

There’s all that news. And there’s also Charlie Sheen.

Charlie Sheen?! Can it really be true that, little more than a week ago, viewers were still gorging, in the name of news, on Charlie Sheen? Duh!

During his latest spell of erratic behavior, he had been fired by the studio behind his show, “Two and a Half Men.” Then he sued the producers for $100 million, by which time he had clinched his identity (at least in his own mind) as a fire-breathing “warlock” out to punish the assorted “trolls” against which he was nursing epic grudges.

For a while, Sheen drove the national conversation. Was he crazy or cool? Did tiger blood really course through his veins? Was peace achievable between him and his bosses? If not, could “Two and a Half Men” survive without him — and vice versa?

He had been in the news many times before. But this go-around, he WAS the news.

Heck, Charlie Sheen was bigger than the Mideast.

“A little bizarre,” he acknowledged during a Feb. 28 interview on “Piers Morgan Tonight,” when his host observed that Sheen was upstaging the turmoil in Libya.

“You turn on the 11 o’clock news and I’m the lead story, and then they get to THAT,” Sheen marveled, “and I’m thinking, the world is upside down.”

For once, he had a point. He had hijacked our attention from the Mideast during one of its most turbulent periods in memory.

Before Sheen stole the show, all eyes had been on Egypt. Crowds jammed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which was first a prime staging ground for rage against President Hosni Mubarak, then the site of mass celebration when he stepped down after 29 years.

Unrest spread to other Arab nations as TV news scrambled to keep up. There were protests in Morocco and Iran. Yemen was heating up. So was the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, a country previously unknown to many Americans.

In Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi has ruled for nearly 42 years, protesters in Beghazi claimed control of the country’s second largest city after days of bloody fighting, and anti-government turmoil spread to the capital city of Tripoli.

As events unfolded, the images were limited but compelling: fuzzy video of demonstrating multitudes; ragged footage of people being ambushed in the streets.

But as the struggle went on, the story seemed to lose its hold on the audience. Maybe the story was too volatile, sprawling across too many countries, with too many leaders to keep straight.

Egypt could rejoice in its liberation — and did, on a grand scale. It made for unforgettable TV.

But after that feel-good apparent finale, viewers seemed ready for the next thing. Fortunately, Sheen was available to seize the spotlight. His raucous media blitz had begun.

It often seems as though the public consciousness is able (or willing) to embrace only one big story at a time. In deference to Sheen, the Mideast was shoved into the background. Despite the high security stakes it represents, it was relegated in many people’s minds to second-tier, “in other news” status, even as the conflict in Libya and Bahrain intensified.

By contrast, L’affaire Sheen was something everyone could follow and talk about, all the better that its outcome made no material difference in the life of anyone who isn’t drawing a paycheck from “Two and a Half Men” or a major stockholder in Time Warner.

Then Japan claimed the top spot from Sheen, who for the moment lurks off-camera gearing up for his “Violent Torpedo of Truth” tour next month.

As every viewer knows too well, the images from Japan have been relentless and haunting. Among them: the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, a foreboding spectacle that hints forcefully at miseries to come.

During TV’s coverage, nuclear-energy experts are speculating on what might happen next at the plant, four of whose six reactor units have had fires, explosions or partial meltdowns. The experts lay out their best- and worst-case scenarios — different versions of awful.

Meanwhile, the crippled plant is a vision of our fear of what’s ahead. It’s been as disturbing as any sight, in a catastrophe full of them.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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