Are you suffering burnout from all the crisis news of the past few weeks?
I doubt it. But if you believe Newsweek and the New York Times, we've got "disaster fatigue" on our hands. Both used the term in reporting how international relief agencies are worried that we have become overloaded and numbed by news of calamity abroad, especially from the Third World. On an ABC "Nightline" discussion the operative words were "crisis fatigue."It is true that we have witnessed an unusual confluence of disaster news in the past month or so: the deaths of at least 138,000 in the cyclone and floods in Bangladesh, followed by earthquake; quakes in Costa Rica and Soviet Georgia; the overwhelming pain of one of the greatest of refugee torrents, involving 1.5 million Kurds; starvation in sub-Saharan Africa; cholera spreading from Peru east and south, and killer tornados in Kansas and Oklahoma.
- THE GLUT OF DISASTER news is by no means unprecedented on a planet constantly visited by disasters natural and man-made, however. Nor is it unusual for the press to make quick, weighty and portentous "wrap-ups" on concurrent calamities. It also leans toward cosmic judgments on our ability to handle the news. And it likes to find a syndrome it can put a handle on, like "disaster fatigue."
Let's not worry as much as the press and the pundits do. For years we've been hearing scare terms like "information overload," a phrase coined by the futurist Alvin Toffler after gazing into his own murky crystal ball.
For press overstatement on our reaction to cataclysmic events, consider the following:
Ten years after the assassination of John Kennedy, the Washington chief for the Los Angeles Times, Robert Donovan, looked back over the past "incredible decade" - the deaths also of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam debacle and all it brought in domestic turmoil, the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson and impending downfall of Richard Nixon, the black revolt, Watergate, Spiro Agnew and war in the Middle East.
He concluded that all this put "a superhuman strain upon people" and even revived the old question of whether mankind can govern itself. "Are the tensions and conflicts too great to resolve? . . . Events pass with such a rush people can scarcely remember them, let alone digest them and fit them into a coherent philosophy. Government by the people is put to a severe test in such conditions."
A Washington Post writer, Coleman McCarthy, wrote in like vein: "It becomes impossible to care about everything, so we end up caring about nothing." The foreign correspondent Peter Lisagor wrote that by 1972 the Vietnam War had so exhausted us that it had become a great yawn.
- THE POLLSTER Don Muchmore found that great events and the perception of people that they could do nothing about them left millions with a feeling of rampant, virulent negativism. And the great editor Norman Cousins intoned that people felt helpless when they perceived themselves "unable to preside over erratic and painful events."
A Northwestern University psychiatrist quoted in the press suggested that accelerating technology and social and political change left the young feeling powerless. The result as he saw it was an apathy and depression among young people dangerous because "when people are apathetic about a choice, they tend to go to more demagoguery."
These quotes are at my fingertips because I gathered them for a guest shot on a U. lecture program some years ago called "The Apocalyptic Vision." And I pretty much parroted them then.
I've changed my mind. Over the years of crises I have observed we are a mature and resilient people, able to take the bad with the good and to act on information provided it is clearly and forcefully brought to our attention.
Some of the past month's disasters have been well reported.
On "Nightline" May 3 Ted Koppel wondered why the press and political leaders who set the national agenda had not paid more attention to Bangladesh, but very quickly thereafter it became a priority news story.
- THAT IS REMARKABLE considering the remoteness of the land from us physically, politically and psychologically, not to speak of the huge costs of getting news from there to media already financially strapped from covering the gulf war. Almost superhuman efforts had to be made to cover it.
It has not been dismissed as "another one of those disasters" on the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, the coverage has spurred our government into some action, just as the media images shamed a laggardly administration into helping the Kurds.
Some of Koppel's guests attributed the paucity of American help up to that point to the fact that it is harder for us to generate overseas aid today and our own domestic problems, including the plight of our own urban refugees, the homeless.
Newsweek pointed to what it called "donor fatigue" to account for what it saw as a tepid response to Third World disasters and "donor impatience" when quick fixes don't come. "People grow weary of giving." Perhaps. It's not easy to see how the magazine arrived at those conclusions, though it offers some anecdotal evidence and a few quotes. There may be other reasons, not the least of which is the recession that has cut people's ability to give.
The disasters ought to weigh on our consciousness. But we ought not to accept too readily the idea that they grind us down to apathy. On that notion the national media ought to lighten up.