by Jason Bell
Halloween Is Cancelled:
At 8:30 p.m. Monday night, Hurricane Sandy was starting to get scary. Windows were rattling, rain was flying sideways, and my friends from Florida were fondly reminiscing about driving from Miami to Boca in a Category 2. I casually glanced at my TweetDeck Twitter feed. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, or some hapless aide-de-camp tweeted:
If conditions are not safe on Wednesday for Trick or Treating, I will sign an Executive Order rescheduling #Halloween.— Governor Christie (@GovChristie) October 30, 2012
By proclaiming authority over a holiday—’he can disrupt the temporal logic by which Halloween always falls on the 31st’—Christie assumes the position of omnipotent leader. He who is capable of moving Halloween is capable of saving his constituents from Frankenstorm. Christie’s claim to salvation seems peculiar and endearing; it is couched in a rhetoric of benevolence and paternalism. He is like Mike Brady, kind and stern and willing to fight for his kids.
Sandy’s Political Spotlight:
Using Parse.ly’s “Web-wide Trends,” it is possible to see an amazing graph of Sandy’s political impact. Our “Web-wide Trends” feature displays the comparative volume of media attention directed on specific topics and celebrities. Sandy itself generated a massive amount of news coverage, but also turned the media’s gaze on certain public figures.
From this first graph, it is apparent that as Sandy’s press spiked, the politicians at the heart of the storm, including Christie, experienced an independent bump. Mitt Romney’s comparatively limited increase in attention is particularly notable; it would suggest that Romney was at best a peripheral figure. Romney’s total slip from the spotlight is even more obvious here:
In contrast to Romney, Obama enjoyed an increase in coverage that is directly correlated to Sandy:
Over the days leading up to Sandy, Obama was actually trailing Romney in terms of total media volume. Thanks to Sandy, however, Obama has gotten a quantifiable press and media coverage bump.
In times of crisis, the public seeks guidance and reassurance from politicians. Disasters are inherently political events because they demand a political response. Is the distinction between the political response to disaster and the politicization of disaster for personal gain without difference?
Reflection: From Twitter to the Times
Twitter is Christie’s forum of choice, ostensibly because it provides the most direct pathway to the people. Newspapers and television stations that reported on Christie’s proclamation picked up the information from Twitter. Thus, Christie could appear to speak to his children, ahem, constituents, promising that Christmas, I mean, Halloween, was saved. No artificial mediation whatsoever. Social media was such a potent political tool during the storm because it fostered a comforting sense of intimacy between governmental authority and those in danger. Hurricane Sandy was the first fully “social” disaster, in which rumors, lies, and life-saving assistance were circulated between victims, emergency responders, and elected representatives.
Yet news media was not so easily left out of the game. Consider, for example, the New York Times, which capitalized on Sandy to lower their paywall and initiate a live feed chockfull of great reporting and interactive features. For the Times, Sandy represented an opportunity to provide the public with critical information and to demonstrate the value of its content.
If Twitter is an information distribution machine, a kind of gaping mouth that sucks in raw reportage and spits out finished news stories, then traditional media outlets are the articulated tongue, determining all that’s fit to print (or say) online. While the storm itself was the bulk subject of news coverage, Sandy turned the spotlight on the public figures responsible for disaster relief. On Twitter, those figures, like Christie, addressed those in need—ironically, many of whom lacked power and Internet. And on the New York Times, political addresses were canonized as political action. “On Christie’s Tour, Hugs, Tears and a Personal Touch,” according to the Times.
In effect, digital news coverage, whether social or conventional, became a means of comforting those removed from the immediate sites of trauma. Even Parse.ly’s CTO channeled his feeling of helplessness to build Parse.ly News, a tool that he and others have used to monitor the latest dispatches from top online media frontpages. Commenting on how it came about, he said: “There was a certain tragedy to it. I was stranded in an apartment in Queens — with the sounds of howling winds, strong rains, and falling trees around me. But my power and Internet stayed on. I wasn’t going to sit around and watch the tube, when thousands were likely flooded out of their homes. I was lucky to be online, so I felt I had to make something useful out of the time I had.”
At the scenes of disaster themselves, the most pertinent news coverage provided practicable directions or immediate assistance. Well-fed and dry in Morningside Heights, but comparatively powerless to help those in need, I felt guilty and good reading about how if “Gov. Christ Christie’s aerial tour alongside President Obama on Wednesday of New Jersey’s storm damage was being observed in intensely political terms…down on the ground, earlier in the day, the governor’s interactions with displaced residents displayed the personal gifts that have won him a broad following.” This framing of Christie’s schedule, split between the hyper-politicized and the personal, manages to color “hugs, tears and a personal touch” with a political implication.
That is not to denigrate the political as somehow nasty or malevolent. “Political” implies the gesture that simultaneously comforts the poor and serves a selfish end: reelection. How confusing indeed. Are we to castigate the self-serving politician, or celebrate his selfish compassion?
Sandy is both a disaster that politicians must address and an opportunity for politicians to consolidate respect and admiration. At stake is a tricky negotiation of mutually incompatible values: the politician’s ethical responsibility to his constituents, and the politician’s ascendancy to power. To fulfill his ethical responsibilities, the politician must have power; but to be powerful, the politician must be unethical, insofar as he must take advantage of disaster for political gain.
Chris Christie has tried to talk his way out of that dilemma. This morning, Christie said on Fox News (and later tweeted), “If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.” But it is hard to believe that a politician’s necessary and even noble responses to disasters are a-political. The demonization of political gamemanship and the unavoidable demand for political disaster response set up a lose-lose scenario for politicians like Christie, who may have the best of intentions. Christie’s denial of politics, which can only be read as facetious or terribly naive, is an evasive maneuver. Otherwise, he would have to admit that all perceived goodness points towards self-serving motivations.
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