Shortly before noon, after wrapping up a taped television interview for NBC and while preparing to broadcast my radio show from our Los Angeles affiliate, one of the station's producers ran up with a breathless announcement. “They just had a big earthquake in Seattle,” he declared, “and it looks pretty bad!”
With my heart racing, I called home. The phone worked normally – thank God! – and my wife picked up after three rings, sounding cheerful but excited. Some cabinets had tipped over in our home, garden steps had cracked, and plates had fallen off shelves and shattered, but the house remained standing and seemed to escape significant damage. Our three kids were all at school, and she assured me they must be safe.
Feeling considerable relief, I went about my business, but made the mistake of putting on CNN. The grim TV coverage directly contradicted my wife's optimistic message: Helicopters roamed over stricken Seattle, zooming in on damaged buildings, cars smashed by masonry, collapsed bridges, sporadic fires. Reporters talked of the magnitude of the quake – even higher on the Richter scale than the devastating 1994 Northridge quake in Los Angeles that killed scores of people. I tried to call my wife again, but now a recorded message declared that all circuits were busy, and I couldn't get through.
I nervously broadcast my three-hour radio show, but kept the TV on in front of me with its volume turned off. The situation became increasingly alarming as news networks found shocking scenes of damage and returned to them again and again. Reports said that broken windows in the control tower forced closure of the airport, and no planes could land. How would I manage to get home that night?
As it turned out, the situation with air travel proved far better than anyone expected, and my plane landed at midnight – less than two hours late. My wife picked me up at the airport, and on the way home I braced myself for scenes of chaos and devastation. Amazingly enough, Seattle looked altogether normal: The elegant “Emerald City” skyline of downtown glittered as always when we drove past.
The next morning, I expected daylight to reveal scars that darkness had obscured, but people came to work as usual, and Seattle showed scant evidence of the appalling rubble that looked so horrifying on TV.
While most people in our region of three million escaped relatively unscathed, thousands of businesses and families did suffer significant losses, financial and emotional. But the amazing overall tally after Seattle's greatest natural disaster in more than 50 years showed no one killed by the quake and nearly all 400 reported injuries classified as minor.
In addition to gratitude for this sort of deliverance, such an experience encourages fresh appreciation for the details of daily life we otherwise take for granted – like the electrical current and water that flow into our heated homes. Following any disruptive event, we long for a return to normal life, since for most Americans, normal life is benign, busy and worth cherishing.
The other message from these few turbulent days involves the distorting impact of TV. I don't blame the news directors and broadcast reporters for highlighting the most disturbing scenes in their coverage. No one could expect them to televise images of all of the undisturbed, undamaged homes and businesses. Scenes of destruction look dramatic on camera, so it's only natural they'll take precedence. If everything is working fine, that's hardly news; when stuff is broken – especially if it's broken in a picturesque way – then you can rivet the attention of viewers.
This same focus on dysfunction pervades most TV programming, entertainment as well as news. Murder will draw more attention than friendship; hate groups prove more compelling than good neighbors; divorce, child abuse or adultery will always prove more dramatic than secure and happy families.
In this way, the amount of time we invest in seeing reality through TV (an average of more than one-fourth of our waking hours!) leads to an unduly pessimistic view of the world. Every natural or man-made catastrophe will look worse than it is in reality, while the miracles of daily life command scant attention. Surely this inevitable media preference for compelling negativity helps to explain our national epidemic of whining, self-pity and competitive victimhood.
A few days after the Seattle story faded, TV displayed the same tendencies with its saturation coverage of the big Northeast snowstorm. Before that blizzard even struck, the stations filled hours with hysterical accounts of its likely impact, and citizens jammed supermarkets to buy emergency supplies. No wonder so many people in every region of the country feel edgy and insecure so much of the time.
I know I'm not the only one who has survived one of these threatening experiences only to take new, abnormal joy in normal conveniences – voicing little prayers of thanksgiving for the orderly, reliable aspects of life. Nor do I stand alone in noting the distance between the exaggerated destruction in initial TV reports of dramatic events and people's often-painless emergence from such ordeals.
If America can maintain a sense of perspective, with gratitude for little things and healthy skepticism about TV's gripping but misleading worldview, then occurrences such as the Great Seattle Quake may for many of us build more blessings than they destroy.
(e3mil columnist Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show that focuses on the intersection of pop culture and politics. You can contact him at www.michaelmedved.com.)