July 16, 2005

Live, I swear

My short review for the current issue of TimeOut Mumbai (June 15) of Satinder Bindra's (CNN) recent book, "Tsunami".


Tsunami: Satinder Bindra, HarperCollins, 2005

Call me a crotchety curmudgeon, but I started on this book with two mental blocks. First, I'm not a fan of "quickie" books, which this one clearly is. Two, I suspected it would be a song of praise to the spirit of all concerned with the tsunami: victims, relief workers, contributors, journalists. It's that too.

Now I am awed by that spirit too, and have written about it myself. But would a more critical look at what happened on and after last December 26 -- especially from Satinder Bindra, one of the faces of tsunami coverage -- not have been useful? After all, what did we learn from this tragedy? Only that people respond with generosity, energy and compassion? Why not explore how relief happens, the kind of relief that comes in? Or examine the way governments react -- not a President's pronouncements, but on the ground, in affected areas? Six months later, reports from Sri Lanka speak of neglect and apathy. Why?

From minute one, when giant waves interrupted Bindra's vacation in Sri Lanka, he worked himself to the bone covering the disaster. The frantic pace of full-fledged news coverage of a huge story is very evident here. Teams flying in from everywhere, quantities of equipment, the intricacies of coordination -- you get a fine sense of all this, and Bindra tells it well. You get a sense too of what the tsunami wreaked -- the train turned into a death-trap, the miracle baby, the great destruction -- and people's struggles to cope.

But by the end, you don't want to hear another word about "live" reporting, because every single mention of "live" is in italics. (Yes). You've plowed through "the first correspondent to arrive in Galle"; and "CNN full force"; and "we were lucky to be able to film this intensely private moment"; and Bindra's ability to "push back a swarm of photographers" to ask someone that classic TV question -- "how she felt"; and how he decided to "tap into the outrage" a story had set off.

And did I mention, all this is live, italicised.

And being so, it overshadows all else in the book. Yes, maybe I'm carping. But what did you learn, Satinder; even as a journalist, what lessons can you offer us that might reduce suffering next time? This book cannot answer that.

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