News wrapped in laughter: Is this the future of current affairs journalism?

Who can follow these footsteps?

Who can follow these footsteps?

In an excellent op ed essay assessing the lasting value and meaning of Walter Cronkite to the world of journalism, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times on 26 July 2009:

“What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in power but his own bosses. Given the American press’s catastrophe of our own day — its failure to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

“That’s why the past week’s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure anchor with Cronkite’s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.”

I cannot agree more with the premise and arguments in this essay, which is well worth a careful, slow read by everyone, everywhere who cares for good journalism — either as practitioners or consumers (and in this media saturated age, don’t we all fall into one or both categories?).

At the same time, without detracting from the value of — and the crying need for — investigative, reflective and ‘serious’ journalism, I believe comedy and especially political satire play a key role today in analysing and critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose decisions and actions impact public policy and public life.

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Political satire is nothing new: it’s been around for as long as organised government. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some more memorable and enduring – such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have been doing it with brilliant economy of words – as I have said more than once on this blog, they are among the finest social philosophers of our times.

In the age of electronic media, it’s only natural that the tradition of satire thrives on the airwaves and online. In fact, there is a rich and diverse offering of politically sensitive and/or active satire in the mainstream and online media that we can consider it a genre of its own. Some of it is so clever, authentic and appealing that we might momentarily forget that we are experiencing a work of satire.
Purists might decry this blurring of traditional demarcations between information, commentary and entertainment — but does that really matter?

When we survey the media and cultural scenes in our globalised world, we see things getting hopelessly entangled and mixed up everywhere. Nothing is quite what they seem – or claim – to be anymore. Content that is explicitly labelled as pure news and current affairs is looking more and more like entertainment. My friend Kunda Dixit, who edits the Nepali Times, says this is inevitable when the same mega corporations own both cartoon networks and news channels.

No news is good news -- for whom?

No news is good news -- for whom?

If the mainstream news organisations don’t quite live up to our expectations to gather, analyse and reflect on the current affairs of the day, we should at least be grateful that some comedians are stepping into that void. We must welcome, celebrate and wish their tribe would increase!

The rise and rise of political satire is also being chronicled and analysed. A new book tells us why we now have to take satire TV seriously — it turns out to be the bearer of the democratic spirit for the post-broadcast age. Titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, the book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson (NYU Press, April 2009).

Here’s the blurb introducing the book: “Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life. Shifts in industry economics and audience tastes have re-made television comedy, once considered a wasteland of escapist humor, into what is arguably the most popular source of political critique. From fake news and pundit shows to animated sitcoms and mash-up videos, satire has become an important avenue for processing politics in informative and entertaining ways, and satire TV is now its own thriving, viable television genre. Satire TV examines what happens when comedy becomes political, and politics become funny.”

The book contains a series of original essays focus on a range of popular shows, from The Daily Show to South Park, Da Ali G Show to The Colbert Report, The Boondocks to Saturday Night Live, Lil’ Bush to Chappelle’s Show, along with Internet D.I.Y. satire and essays on British and Canadian satire. “They all offer insights into what today’s class of satire tells us about the current state of politics, of television, of citizenship, all the while suggesting what satire adds to the political realm that news and documentaries cannot.”

Let me summarise the news so far. Intentionally or otherwise, some news anchors and politicians are increasingly behaving like comedians. Meanwhile, a few professional comedians are talking serious politics and current affairs in a genre of media that is growing in popularity by the day.

Are you confused yet? Well, get used to it. This is the shape of things to come.

In such topsy-turvy times, we need more Jon Stewarts to puncture the bloated egos and images of not only elected and other public officials, but also of our larger-than-life news anchors, editors and media tycoons. I would any day have conscientious comedians doubling as social and political commentators than suffer shallow, glib newscasters trying to be entertainers. That’s what you call laughing for a good cause.

Parting thought: There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter. More about this soon.

Backgrounder:

The news as you never saw it before...

The news as you never saw it before...

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an American late night satirical television programme, airing on Comedy Central, a cable/satellite channel. The half-hour long show is presented as a (fake) newscast. In their own words, the Daily Show team “bring you the news like you’ve never seen it before — unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.” It “takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view.”

The show premiered in July 1996, and was initially hosted by Craig Kilborn. Jon Stewart took over as host in January 1999, and made it more strongly focused on politics. In each show, anchorman Jon Stewart and his team of correspondents, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.

This is what the Wikipedia says: “The program has grown in popularity since Jon Stewart took over hosting, with organizations such as the Pew Research Center claiming that it has become a primary source of news for many young people, an assertion the show’s staff have repeatedly rejected. Critics, including series co-creator Lizz Winstead, have chastised Stewart for not conducting hard-hitting enough interviews with his political guests, some of whom he may have previously lampooned in other segments; while others have criticized the show as having a liberal bias. Stewart and other Daily Show writers have responded to both criticisms by saying that they do not have any journalistic responsibility and that as comedians their only duty is to provide entertainment.”

OK, The Daily Show may not be intentionally serious journalism, anymore than mainstream news channels are intentionally funny. But a significant number of American TV viewers and TV critics, as well as media researchers, have found the analysis and commentary to be highly insightful and incisive. It has won many awards including an Emmy and Peabody Award. It’s been on the cover of Newsweek for its outstanding elections coverage and serious journalism. It’s not to be laughed off easily.

After the Last Newspaper...

After the Last Newspaper...

Asia’s Other Eclipse: The one that doesn’t make TV news!

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This multiple exposure image shows the various stages of the total solar eclipse in Baihata village, 30 kms from Guwahati, the capital city of the northeastern state of Assam on July 22, 2009. The longest solar eclipse of the 21st century cast a shadow over much of Asia, plunging hundreds of millions into darkness across the giant land masses of India and China. AFP PHOTO/ Biju BORO

This century’s longest solar eclipsed moved across Asia on 22 July 2009, wowing scientists and the public alike. Asia’s multifarious media covered the solar eclipse with great enthusiasm and from myriad locations across the vast continent.

The path of the eclipse’s totality –- where the sun was completely obscured by the Moon for a few astounding minutes –- started in northern India. It then crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. Those who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time saw one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena. It was certainly a sight to behold, capture on film, and cherish for a lifetime.

But many along the path missed this chance as clouds obscured the Sun. It’s the rainy season in much of Asia, where the delayed monsoon is finally delivering much-needed rain.

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

Eclipse watching in Taregna, Bihar, India - Photo: Prashant Ravi, BBC Online

That’s what happened in Taregna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. The media had dubbed it the ‘epicentre’ of the solar eclipse, and estimated totality to be visible for at least three minutes and 38 seconds. Thousands who flocked to the village were disappointed when the clouds refused to budge. Nature doesn’t follow our scripts.

That didn’t deter some affluent Indians -– if the eclipse won’t come to them, they just went after it. They chartered an airplane to fly above the rain clouds to catch the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse. Each seat cost US Dollars 1,650.

It’s rarely that totality crosses through countries with such high human numbers as China and India. This time around, millions of people and thousands of journalists took advantage.

Some travelled long distances hoping to get the best view from the 200-km wide path of totality. Others watched it one of Asia’s many and cacophonous 24/7 TV news channels. The event had all the elements of a perfect television story: mass anticipation, eager experts and enthusiasts, occasional superstitions, uncertainties of weather and, finally, a stunning display of Nature’s raw power.

‘Darkness at Dawn!’ screamed a popular headline, referring to the eclipse causing a sudden ‘nightfall’ after the day had begun. Other superlatives like ‘Spectacle of the century’ and ‘A sight never to be missed’ were also widely used.

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar Buddhist novices watch solar eclipse through the filters, in Yangon, Myanmar

Solar eclipses are indeed a marvel of Nature, and the media’s excitement was justified. For once, it was good to see them devoting a great deal of airtime and print/web space for something that was not violent, depressing or life-threatening.

How I wish Asia’s media took as much interest in another kind of ‘eclipse’ that surrounds and engulfs us! One that does not end in minutes, but lasts for years or decades, and condemns millions to lives of misery and squalor.

Stories of poverty, social disparity and economic marginalisation are increasingly ‘eclipsed’ in Asia by stories of the region’s growing economic and geopolitical might.

The mainstream media in Asia –- as well as many outlets in the West — never seem to tire of carrying reports of Asia rising. Indeed, that is a Big Story of our times: many Asian economies have been growing for years at impressive rates. Thanks to this, over 250 million Asians have moved out of poverty during this decade alone. According to the UN’s Asian arm ESCAP, this is the fastest poverty reduction progress in history.

We see evidence of increased prosperity and higher incomes in many parts of developing Asia. Gadgets and gizmos –- from MP3 to mobile phones — sell like hot cakes. More Asians are travelling for leisure than ever before, crowding our roads, trains and skies. Lifestyle industries never had it so good. Even the current recession hasn’t fully dampened this spending spree.

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

World map proportionate to number of poor people in each country/region - from Atlas of the Real World

But not everyone is invited to the party. Tens of millions of people are being left behind. Many others barely manage to keep up -– they must keep running fast just to stay in the same place.

National governments, anxious to impress their own voters and foreign investors, often gloss over these disparities. The poor don’t get more than a token nod in Davos. National statistical averages of our countries miss out on the deprivations of significant pockets of population.

For example, despite recent gains, over 640 million Asians were still living on less than one US Dollar a day in 2007 according to UN-ESCAP. Three quarters of the 1.9 billion people who lack safe sanitation are in Asia — that’s one huge waiting line for a toilet!

On the whole, the UN cautions that the Asia Pacific region is in danger of missing out the 2015 target date for most Millennium Development Goals – the time-bound and measurable targets for socio-economic advancement that national leaders committed to in 2000.

The plight of marginalised groups is ignored or under-reported by the cheer-leading media. For the most part, these stories remain forever eclipsed. Except, that is, when frustrations accumulate and blow up as social unrest, political violence or terrorism. Even then, the media’s coverage is largely confined to reporting the symptoms rather than the underlying social maladies.

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

Indonesian children look up through x-ray film sheets to watch a solar eclipse in the sky in Anyer Beach, Banten province, Indonesia

“Half the children in South Asia go to bed hungry every night, but the covers of our news magazines are about weight loss parlors,” says Kunda Dixit, Chief Editor of The Nepali Times.

As he noted in a recent essay: “Maternal mortality in parts of Nepal is nearly at sub-Saharan levels, but we are obsessed with politics. Hundreds of cotton farmers in India commit suicide every year because of indebtedness, but the media don’t want to cover it because depressing news puts off advertisers. Reading the region’s newspapers, you would be hard-pressed to find coverage of these slow emergencies.”

P N Vasanti, Director of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies which monitors the leading newspapers and news channels in India, laments how “development” issues such as health, agriculture and education are not even on the radar of popular news sources. Her conclusion is based on a content analysis of the six major Indian news channels during the run-up to the recent general election in India.

I have come across similar apathy in my travels across Asia trying to enhance television broadcasters’ coverage of development and poverty issues. As one Singaporean broadcast manager, running a news and entertainment channel in a developing country, told me: “I don’t ever want to show poor people on my channel.”

Don’t get me wrong. Trained as a science journalist, I can fully appreciate the awe and wonder of a solar eclipse. For years, I have cheered public-spirited scientists who join hands with the media to inform and educate the public on facts and fallacies surrounding these celestial events.

But there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our mainstream media’s breathless coverage of the march of capital. Journalists and their gate-keepers should look around harder for the many stories that stay eclipsed for too long.

* * * * * *

Shorter version of the above comment was published by Asia Media Forum on 23 July 2009

Full length version appeared on OneWorld.Net on 23 July 2009

Reprinted in The Nepali Times, 24 July 2009

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Waiting for his long eclipse to end...

Lights, Camera, Apollo: Did NASA and Hollywood co-produce Moon Landings?

Is this how it really happened? Just kidding!

Is this how it really happened? Just kidding!

When NASA announced last week that they were working with a leading digital imaging company in Hollywood to remaster the original Apollo 11 Moon walk video footage, I told myself: that’s one more cannon to the conspiracy theorists!

Everyone would welcome a quality improvement in those murky, grainy moving images capturing humanity’s grand achievement. But the choice of Lowry Corporation, best known for restoring old Hollywood films, could fuel the fire of conspiracy theorists who argue that the entire Moon landing was faked by NASA with the connivance and participation of Hollywood. They believe that the entire Apollo programme – that landed people on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972 – was staged on a movie set or secret military base.

This link didn’t bother Richard Nafzger, the NASA engineer who oversaw television processing at the ground-tracking sites during the Apollo 11 mission, and now involved in their restoration. “This company is restoring historic video. It mattered not to me where the company was from,” Nafzger was quoted as saying.

Technically and officially, NASA is right. The US space agency has always dismissed the conspiracy theorists, and not spent much time discussing the outrageous idea. As it says on NASA website: “The Apollo Moon landings were among the most completely documented and observed events in history. Moon rocks have been examined by scientists from all over the world, not just the U.S. Video special effects were in their infancy in the late 60’s so that faking a landing on the Moon would probably have been more difficult than actually going there, and it seems highly unlikely that the hundreds or even thousands of people who would have had to be involved in such a conspiracy would have kept it a secret for so long.”

In another place, NASA website says Moon rocks and common sense prove Apollo astronauts really did visit the Moon.

Err, Wasn't Spielberg only 23 at the time...?

Err, Wasn't Spielberg only 23 at the time...?

Independent scientists point out that it would be impossible for tens of thousands of NASA employees and Apollo contractors to keep such a whopping secret for almost four decades. Tell that to those who are deeply suspicious of anything to do with governments, who historically don’t have the best record for transparency and full disclosure!

So the conspiracy theory lingers. Like many other crazy ‘theories’, it has spread rapidly with the growth of the Internet. It’s really an old one: even at the time Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, a few people refused to believe it as it apparently conflicted with their religious beliefs.

The Moon Hoax, as it’s popularly called, accuses NASA of manufacturing, destroying, or tampering with evidence — including photos, telemetry tapes, transmissions, and rock samples; and that the deception continues to this day. These theorists concede that the Apollo launches did take place. But instead of going to the Moon, which they say was technologically impossible at the time, the astronauts just orbited the Earth for a few days while NASA carefully fed the media with manufactured images. And then they returned to a heroes’ welcome!

Before we proceed, let’s agree that there is independent, verifiable and irrefutable evidence that the Moon landings did take place. Here are a few online sources for details:
Bad Astronomy website by Phil Plaits
Did We Really Land on the Moon? Suggestions for Science Teachers from Rational Inquiry
Wikipedia entry: collaborative discussion with multiple sources cited
Clavius.org website

My curiosity in conspiracy theories stems from my interest in popular culture. In this instance, I’m intrigued to note how moving images have fuelled the Moon Hoax theory in a number of ways. A cornerstone in the doubters’ argument is that NASA’s photos and videos from the moon contained ‘suspicious anomalies’ (all of which, by the way, have been satisfactorily explained by scientists.)

Superb entertainment, but it was just that...

Superb entertainment, but it was just that...

Some believe that these theories inspired the 1978 movie Capricorn One, where NASA fakes a Mars landing on a military base on Earth, and then goes to desperate lengths to cover it up. It’s entirely possible that some people can’t discern fact from fiction. Or why allow facts to get in the way of a damn good story?

In 1980, the Flat Earth Society was one of the first to accuse NASA of faking the Moon landings, arguing that these events were actually staged in Hollywood studios and based on a script written by Arthur C. Clarke! Another group suggested that acclaimed film director Stanley Kubrick, who co-wrote with Clarke the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, was strong-armed into shooting much of the Apollo footage.

Sir Arthur Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, used to laugh these off. He’d enjoyed a ring side seat when he joined Walter Cronkite in covering Apollo 11 and later missions for CBS News.

At one point in the early 1990s, he wrote to the NASA Administrator, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, saying: “Dear Sir, On checking my records, I see that I have never received any payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise, you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”

Of course, he never received – nor expected – a reply. But when media reports about this appeared, some with no sense of humour considered it further ‘proof’ of a cover-up!

And here’s another connection: Peter Hyams, who directed Capricorn One, went on to direct the movie adaptation of Arthur C Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two, which was released in 1984.

More seriously, in later years Sir Arthur was concerned that at one point a few years ago, millions of Americans harboured doubts whether the Moon landings actually took place. That indicated a failure of the education system to produce people with critical thinking abilities, he said.

The conspiracies received a boost when, on 15 February 2001, the Fox News TV network aired
Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?. Hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi, this hour-long, sensational documentary peddled what it called eerie “inconsistencies” in NASA’s Apollo images and TV footage. Among them: no blast craters are visible under the landing modules; shadows intersect instead of running parallel, suggesting the presence of an unnatural light source; and a planted American flag appears to ripple in a breeze although there’s no wind on the moon.

It concluded that the whole Apollo Moon landings were faked in the Nevada desert because, cccording to the conspiracy theorists, NASA did not have the technical capability of going to the Moon, but pressure due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union forced them to fake it. Fox TV did preface the programme with a notice saying: “The following programme deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible interpretation. Viewers are invited to make a judgement based on all available information.” But skeptics felt Fox didn’t do enough to provide a minimum level of balance in their discussion.

Warning: This is a funny cartoon and not meant to be taken seriously

Warning: This is a funny cartoon and not meant to be taken seriously

The documentary’s ‘evidence’ has since been refuted point by point. NASA has also dismissed the documentary’s claims. It prompted Sir Arthur Clarke to protest to his long-time friend Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox TV network, for peddling unscientific nonsense.

Rather than being a ‘true believer’, Fox TV may have been trying to boost its audience ratings. But others in the moving images industry apparently take the matter very seriously. Among them is the film-maker Bart Sibrel. His aggressive interview tactics once provoked astronaut Buzz Aldrin (second man to walk on the Moon) to punch him in the face in a 2002 encounter.

“I don’t want to call attention to the individuals who are trying to promote and shuffle off this hoax on people,” Aldrin told CNN in a recent interview. “I feel sorry for the gullible people who’re going to go along with them. I guess it’s just natural human reaction to want to be a part of ‘knowing something that somebody doesn’t know.’ But it’s misguided. It’s just a shame.”

One of the strongest rebuttals of the Moon hoax on TV has come from the Mythbusters series of popular science programmes produced by Beyond Television Productions, originally for the Discovery Channel. The series features special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, who use basic elements of the scientific method to test the validity of various rumors, myths, movie scenes, internet videos and news stories in popular culture.

In August 2008, they tackled a number of pervasive myths associated with the Moon landing, debunking them one by one. To film the episode, Adam, Jamie and the rest of the Mythbusters team visited the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. A team of Marshall scientists helped the Mythbusters with several of their tests. Here are two excerpts:

Mythbusters probe the ‘Moonlanding photo hoax’

Mythbusters investigate ‘Moonwalk hoax’:


Read Space.com coverage about how Mythbusters busted the Moon Hoax.

Read Popular Mechanics coverage on the Mythbusters exposure

As the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing passes, the scientific community and rationalists will have to make some hard choices. How much more time and energy must they expend countering such wildly fanciful theories and fantasies? In a world that still has a (dwindling?) number of people who believe in more ancient concepts like the Flat Earth theory, is it really surprising that the Space Age would inspire its own share of modern-day myths?

No matter what the scientists say and how overwhelming the evidence is, conspiracy theories will always believe what they want. Often their convictions border on a blind faith – and as Arthur C Clarke was fond of saying (in relation to religions), one definition of faith is ‘believing in what you know isn’t true!’.

In a pluralistic world, people choose what to believe in

In a pluralistic world, people choose what to believe in

Then there is simple demographics. The total world population in 1969 was 3.6 billion. Today, it has surpassed 6.7 billion. This means nearly half of the people alive today were not even born when Neil and Buzz stepped on to the Moon. At 43, even I have only a headline memory of Apollo 11, even if it’s a strong one.

NASA itself is well aware of this. “As the number of people who were not yet born at the time of the Apollo program increases, the number of questions [about the moon landings] also may increase,” NASA said in a statement on the eve of the anniversary. “Conspiracy theories are always difficult to refute because of the impossibility of proving a negative.”

Perhaps what the Moon Hoax debate really needs is what Sir Arthur Clarke once proposed as a response to the obsession with UFOs and alien abductions: a decade or so of benign neglect. Conspiracy theorists and myth-makers thrive on counter-arguments and debate. When they don’t get it for long enough, they’ll probably run out of steam.

Meanwhile, networks like Fox News should stick to making entertainment programming that is labeled as such. Who can find fault with creations like The Simpsons?

One small step for (a) man, one giant memory for…me!

This can outlast us all...

The most expensively obtained footprint in history, this can outlast us all on the airless Moon...

When Neil Armstrong took that first ‘small step’ on to the Moon, at 10.56 pm Eastern Standard Time on 20 July 1969, it was already 21 July in many other parts of the world. It didn’t matter: day or night, East or West, people all over followed the mission’s progress over TV or radio. As Armstrong climbed down the lunar module’s ladder, more than 750 million people back on Earth had collectively held their breath.

This event holds special significance for me personally. It’s the earliest childhood memory that I have which can be pinned down to a specific date. And what a date!

I was a little over three years old at the time (as I like to put it, I’m the same age as Star Trek!). The year 1969 was already the most eventful yet in my (very short) life: in April that year, a younger sister was born. And at the beginning of July, I started in pre-school. I should think that at least the ‘headlines’ of such key events would be imprinted in my (usually good and sharp) memory. But those events are buried deep beneath the sediments of memory, and I have to turn to secondary (parental) sources to get any details.

What I do remember, to this day, is the excitement over the first Moon landing. My father was listening to the live radio broadcast on Voice of America. Sri Lanka had no television broadcasts then (that medium would arrive only 10 years later), so the only choice was to tune in to radio and imagine the pictures….or wait for the next day’s newspapers.

The crackling shortwave transmission came in loud and (mostly) clear through the large radiogram that sat in a prominent corner of our spacious living room. At over three feet in height, and encased in neatly polished wood, the instrument must have appeared formidable to little me. That was our solitary window to the outside world.

One of my earliest childhood photos...not longer after I took my own first 'small steps'

One of my earliest childhood photos, circa late 1968...not long after I took my own first 'small steps'

Although I realised something pretty important was happening, I didn’t understand what the commentary said. English was still an alien language – heck, at that tender age, I was still picking my mother tongue! But the inquisitive brat that I was, I asked my father to give me occasional summaries of what was going on. His school teacher experience must have helped him to distill the essence for me.

After all these years, I can’t remember too many details. But the highlights linger on, if only as distant headlines. Neil Armstrong’s one small step was taken. Neil and Buzz hopped around like kangaroos, enjoying the lower lunar gravity. They planted the American flag and set up scientific instruments. Then collected lunar soil samples. They often talked as they worked. Mission Control closely followed their every move…as did the whole world, a quarter of a million miles away.

Then it was time to head back. I would later find out that leaving the Moon after two and a half hours of exploration was a particularly tensed moment in the mission. The astronauts had one chance to rejoin the ‘mother ship’ orbiting the Moon. If their lunar module failed to take off, they’d be marooned on the Moon — with absolutely no hope of a rescue.

Having spent just about 1,000 days on Earth myself, I had no clue about any of these dangers. But the one ‘tough’ question I still remember asking my father is: “What could happen if the astronauts can’t return?”

I’m not sure what answer, if any, he gave me. His background was in history and languages, not science. But that sure was an indication that I had the knack for asking difficult, sometimes irritating, questions.

Forty years on, I still haven’t stopped.

Popular Mechanics July 2009 issue has some soundbites from the VOA’s Apollo 11 broadcast

‘Live from the Moon’…and then Lost on Earth: Story of Apollo broadcasts

Apollo still photos were much better than broadcast images: how come?

Apollo still photos were much better than broadcast images: how come?

In theory, it can happen to anyone recording moving images on tape or digital media: absent-mindedly or carelessly re-use the recording media, and thus lose the original content. If no copy exists, such an accident means an irrevocable loss.

But if the images were the most expensively shot in the whole of human history — literally costing billions of dollars and involving the genius and labour of half a million people over several years — we would expect these to be archived and preserved with great care, right?

Well, not necessarily — if the custodian is a government agency. On eve of the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Apollo 11, the US space agency NASA dropped a bombshell: it admitted that the original recordings of that historic moment were accidentally erased years later.

One British newspaper called it “the scientific equivalent of recording an old episode of EastEnders over the prized video of your daughter’s wedding day”.

Can you see the men on the Moon? Well, only just...

Can you see the Moon on the Moon? Well, only just...

The loss became public when the Sydney Morning Herald broke the story in August 2096. “A desperate search has begun amid concerns the tapes will disintegrate to dust before they can be found,” it said.

While the media rushed with oops-style headlines like ‘One giant blunder for mankind’, NASA quietly investigated what really happened. Last week, they revealed the hard truth: the tapes were part of a batch of 200,000 that were degaussed – or magnetically erased — and re-used. It was a standard money-saving measure at NASA in those pre-digital days to reuse the 14-inch tape reels after several years in storage. Agency officials fear that the original Apollo 11 tapes were buried among an estimated 350,000 that were recycled in the 1970s and 1980s and the data was lost for ever.

But the historic visuals are not entirely lost: luckily, broadcasters who used NASA’s expensively obtained footage had archived their transmissions for posterity. For many months, NASA has worked with a leading digital imaging company in Hollywood to restore good copies of the Apollo 11 broadcast found in the archives of CBS News and some recordings called kinescopes found in film vaults at Johnson Space Center.

On 16 July 2009, NASA released the first glimpses of a complete digital make-over of the original landing footage that looked decidedly sharper and clearer than the blurry and grainy images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon.

And we have to admit, the new video is definitely better than the ones we’ve seen for 40 years!

Raw Video: Restored Video of Apollo 11 Moonwalk

Another montage of digitally restored Apollo 11 mission highlights:

The full set of recordings, being cleaned up by Burbank, California-based Lowry Digital, are to be released in September 2009.

Read technical details of how Lowry Digital is restoring NASA’s original footage of the Apollo 11 mission

I had often wondered why the original images from the Moon were so grainy: it wasn’t typical even for that time. And if NASA spent between US$ 22 to 25 billion on landing men on the Moon, surely they’d have harnessed the best available technology to capture and share their moments of triumph, I assumed.

Actually, the video coverage that was broadcast around the world — to an estimated audience of 500 to 750 million people — and has since been endlessly redistributed was not quite what came from the Moon. It was a diluted version. Stanley Lebar, the NASA engineer in charge of developing the lunar camera, now calls a “bastardized” version of the actual footage.

Here is the “as-it-happened” broadcast from CBS News that day, with the legendary Walter Cronkite anchoring to the biggest TV audience the world had known. (Footnote: You’ll see the first electronic “character generators” in use.)

The story is technically complex, but here’s the essence: live images from the Moon couldn’t be fed directly to the American TV networks using the NTSC broadcast standard. Audiences worldwide would be holding their breath that a delayed broadcast, even by a few minutes, would not have been as effective as ‘live from the Moon’. Under such time pressures, no conversions could be attempted. So a regular TV camera was pointed at the huge wall monitor at mission control in Houston.

This is known as kinescope, or telerecording: a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor. That resulted in the grayish, blotchy images that everyone saw on their home TV sets. In other words, It was a copy of a copy, with significant quality losses in that process!

And what is now lost, permanently, are the tapes containing the original Slow-Scan Television (SSTV) tapes. Digitally remastering the CBS broadcast tapes is now offering us better images than we’ve been used to for 40 years, for sure, but they stem from an already adulterated source.

Scan-converted broadcast image of Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder taken at Goldstone tracking station. This was the image the world saw of the first human on the Moon. But a Polaroid picture of the Slow-Scan television image of Armstrong coming down the ladder reveals far greater detail. Image Courtesy: John Sarkissian/CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory

Scan-converted broadcast image of Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder taken at Goldstone tracking station. This was the image the world saw of the first human on the Moon. But a Polaroid picture of the Slow-Scan television image of Armstrong coming down the ladder reveals far greater detail. Image Courtesy: John Sarkissian/CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory

A new documentary, released in January 2009, offers new insights into one of the most challenging feats in international live broadcasting – how those images from the Moon were delivered to TV audiences around the world. Produced by Spacecraft Films and directed by Mark Gray Live from the Moon: The Story of Apollo Television

It tells how for the first time in history millions of people could share, in real time, the experience of frontier exploration.

The story behind the camera...finally!

The story behind the camera...finally!

“Placing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth was hard enough in 1969,” says Gray. “‘Live From The Moon’ tells the story of how television, still a technological toddler, was developed for space flight, and examines the impact of the iconic passages that were returned.”

Here’s an excerpt from Space.com that reviewed the film:

To tell that story, Gray literally circled the Earth, shooting interviews at the deep space communication stations in California and Australia, as well as at space facilities and museums in Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Princeton, Kennedy Space Center, Huntsville, Ala., Washington, DC and Weatherford, Oklahoma.

Along the way, he interviewed astronauts, flight directors, mission controllers, tracking station operators, historians and those who built the television cameras for the space program…. “Live from the Moon” is told with the insight of moonwalker Alan Bean; Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford; flight director Chris Kraft; Neil Mason, who drove the Parkes Telescope; Westinghouse camera team leader Stan Lebar; and the voice of mission control Jack King, among others.

“Every single one of them believed that the TV was one of the most important legacies of Apollo. And many of them admitted candidly that they didn’t give the TV much thought during the actual missions,” recalled Gray.

No Moon, please – we’re Ceylonese: How Sri Lanka lost the Moon…

We came in peace for all makind...

We came in peace for all makind...

When Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon 40 years ago this week, they were more than just Americans taking that historic first step on to another celestial body.

Yes, they planted the US flag there – after all, it was the American tax payers who financed the massive operation. But they left on the Moon other items that signified the universal nature of their mission.

One was a plaque (photo, above) saying “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It bore the signature of the three astronauts –- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins –- and then US President Richard Nixon. Another was a golden olive branch.

The astronauts also left behind a silicon disc, which is one of the most important and symbolic items taken to the Moon. Etched on to that disc, about the size of a half US dollar coin, are miniaturised messages of goodwill and peace from 73 heads of state or government around the world.

The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size

The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size

These letters were received by NASA during the final weeks running up to the launch on 16 July 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour.

It was only in June 1969 that the US State Department authorised NASA to solicit messages of goodwill from world leaders to be left on the Moon. This triggered a minor diplomatic frenzy, with invitations going out from Thomas O Paine, the NASA Administrator.

In all, 116 countries were contacted through their embassies in Washington DC, but only 73 responded in time. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, responded. But for some unknown and unexplained reason, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.

When I first heard about it about 18 months ago, I was both intrigued and curious. Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic arrogance that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? After all these years, we might never find out.

I have now written this up in an article titled ‘How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon’, which appears this weekend in the mainstream media and online in two different versions.

The Sunday Leader newspaper has printed the compact version in its issue for 19 July 2009. Citizen journalism website Groundviews carries the more detailed version, where an interesting reader discussion is evolving…

The story is based largely on a book that came out in 2007. Titled We Came In Peace For All Mankind: The Untold Story Of The Apollo 11 Silicon Disc, it was authored by Tahir Rahman, a Kansas-based physician and space historian.

Uncovering forgotten history

Uncovering forgotten history

The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo 11 mission. It also reproduces each of the 73 goodwill messages, as well as those which were received too late for inclusion on the disc.

“I was amazed at how NASA and the State Department rushed to get these messages before launch,” says Rahman. He took two months to locate from the Library of Congress the boxes in which NASA Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.

While researching for this article, I contacted Rahman hoping for some additional insights, but he replied: “I do not have any information about why Sri Lanka did not send an Apollo 11 goodwill message.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, was also intrigued by Ceylon’s decision, which he didn’t know about until Rahman’s book reprinted the official letter. His only remark: “Mysterious are the ways governments think and work.”

Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. Only two of the world leaders are still holding office (Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, and King of Thailand); most of them are dead. Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. Geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.

The story of the Apollo 11 silicon disc is more a history and politics lesson, and less a science story. But I’m glad that I found a little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo missions to write about on its 40th anniversary.

Watch Tahir Rahman interviewed on Fox News network:

Walter Cronkite (1916 – 2009): And that’s the way it was…

Walter Cronkite (1916 - 2009): The man who ruled American airwaves

Walter Cronkite (1916 - 2009): The man who ruled American airwaves

Walter Cronkite, the broadcast journalist and newscaster who redefined television news of his generation, has just signed off for the very last time. A leading light in the history of moving images is gone. What a light…and what a voice.

The New York Times reported the loss as its front page lead: “Walter Cronkite, who pioneered and then mastered the role of television news anchorman with such plain-spoken grace that he was called the most trusted man in America, died Friday at his home in New York. He was 92.”

Cronkite was best known as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962–81). He was at the helm at a time when television became the dominant news medium of the United States. His influence spread well beyond one network, one medium and one generation.

America's favourite uncle...

America's favourite uncle...

Danny Schechter, the News Dissector and head of MediaChannel.org, said in a tribute: “He figuratively held the hand of the American public during the civil rights movement, the space race, the Vietnam war, and the impeachment of Richard Nixon.”

His own former network, CBS, noted in a tribute: “Known for his steady and straightforward delivery, his trim moustache, and his iconic sign-off line – ‘That’s the way it is’ – Cronkite dominated the television news industry during one of the most volatile periods of American history. He broke the news of the Kennedy assassination, reported extensively on Vietnam and Civil Rights and Watergate, and seemed to be the very embodiment of TV journalism.”

The New York Times report added: “On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Mr. Cronkite briefly lost his composure in announcing that the president had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Taking off his black-framed glasses and blinking back tears, he registered the emotions of millions.”

Walter Cronkite announces death of President John F Kennedy: 22 November 1963

He is especially remembered for publicly opposing the Vietnam War. In 1968, he traveled to Vietnam, where he called the war a stalemate and advocated a negotiated peace. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said after seeing the broadcast, according to Bill Moyers, an aide to the president at the time.

In July 1969, Cronkite anchored the historic 32-hour CBS broadcast that covered the first Moon landing, which became the most widely watched live broadcast event worldwide up to that time. When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Cronkite exclaimed, “Oh, boy!” — another rare show of emotion for the leading anchorman of his era who chose to keep his opinions separate from the news he covered and presented.

Cronkite missed the 40th anniversary of Apollo only by a few days. He will be sadly missed when astronauts and space buffs mark the event.

In this excerpt from for a 4-hour interview filmed for the Archive of American Television in 1998, Cronkite explains the origin of “That’s the way it is”– his signature sign-off:

New York Times has compiled some of his most memorable TV News moments.

The true professional he was, he never retired. Long after leaving CBS News, he remained fully active, engaged and supportive of good journalism in the United States and around the world. He lent his name to educational and charitable causes nurturing investigative journalism.

Danny Schechter writes in his blog: “In his later years, Walter Cronkite abandoned the pretense of only being above the fray and started speaking out as an internationalist for arms control and world federalism, and on many other global issues. He supported progressive causes but never too blatantly. He was very conscious of his image and reputation and identification with the media and power elite. He lived up the street from the United Nations and was often a speaker at UN events.”

Reproduced in full below is the endorsement Walter Cronkite gave our friends at MediaChannel.org, an online media activist group that keeps the spotlight on the media. In the dark during our own war, and in the days since the war ended, I have often found solace, inspiration and courage in his words.

* * * * * *

Walter Cronkite On The Media­ And The MediaChannel.


Good evening, I’m Walter Cronkite. I really wanted to be with you in person tonight for Globalvision New Media’s launch of the new Internet site the Media Channel, but unfortunately I was called out of the country. Yet the issues that led to the creation of this unique global resource, and the crisis that’s facing all of us who work in and care about journalism and the media, are so profound that I simply felt compelled to tape this message so that you would know that I am with you in spirit at least.

As you know, I’ve been increasingly and publicly critical of the direction that journalism has taken of late, and of the impact on democratic discourse and principles. Like you, I’m deeply concerned about the merger mania that has swept our industry, diluting standards, dumbing down the news, and making the bottom line sometimes seem like the only line. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be.

We report, you decide...

We report, you decide...

At the same time, I’m impressed that so many other serious and concerned people around the world are also becoming interested in holding media companies accountable and upholding the highest standards of journalism.

The Media Channel will undoubtedly be worth watching and taking part in. I am intrigued by its potential, and its global reach. The idea that so many leading groups and individuals around the whole world have come together to share resources and information about a wide range of media concerns is very promising, and I urge you to make the Media Channel your media ‘bookmark’ and your portal to the Internet.

I’m particularly excited about one aspect of the Media’s Channel’s work: its encouragement to people inside the media to speak up ­to speak out about their own experiences. Corporate censorship is just as dangerous as government censorship, you know, and self-censorship can be the most insidious form of pulling punches. Pressures to go along, to get along, or to place the needs of advertisers or companies above the public’s need for reliable information distort a free press and threaten democracy itself.

I’m pleased that the Media Channel opens an immediately available resource for media whistle-blowers. Anonymity will be protected, of course­ if their stories check out, of course. And, of course, are backed up with the facts.

We have all been supportive for years of dissidents around the world who take great risks to stand up for what they believe in. But here at home, in our own industry, we need to make it possible for people to speak out when they feel they’ve been wronged, even if it means shaming newsrooms to do the right thing. Journalists shouldn’t have to check their consciences at the door when they go to work for a media company. It ought to be just the reverse.

As I’ve said on other occasions, the strength of the American system is possible and can be nurtured only if there is lively and provocative dissent. In a healthy environment dissent is encouraged and considered essential to feed a cross-fertilization of ideas and thwart the incestuous growth of stultifying uniformity.

We need to encourage and support those among us who face either overt or covert threats­ or even a more subtle absence of encouragement to search out the truth. We all know that economic pressures and insecurities within news organizations have reduced the scope and range of investigative reporting. Sometimes projects are spiked with just a simple phrase: “It’s not for us.”

We’re always ready to speak out when journalists are at risk. But today we must speak out because journalism itself is at risk. That’s why I’m speaking out and reaching out to you tonight, to tell you that I like the idea of the Media Channel and want to encourage your participation.

And that’s the way it is.

Walter Cronkite interviews President Kennedy - Photo courtesy Associated Press

Walter Cronkite interviews President Kennedy - Photo courtesy Associated Press

She should have gone to the Moon…but wasn’t ‘monkey enough’?

She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...

She couldn't shatter the glass ceiling to space...

Exactly 40 years ago, on 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off carrying three American astronauts to the Moon. Four days later, history was made when Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., become the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body, while their colleague Michael Collins circled the Earth.

When Armstrong stepped on the Moon, he said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind“. Man on the Moon was very much the news highlight of 1969, and at the time, the term ‘mankind’ was understood to include women as well. The more gender-neutral term ‘humankind’ would come into popular use some years later.

Beginning with Apollo 11, the Apollo programme landed a dozen astronauts on the Moon, all of who returned safely – as did the astronauts of the disaster-stricken mission, Apollo 13. Without exception, all of them were white and male. While they were all highly qualified, disciplined and trained men who had worked long and hard to earn their places in history, they did not fully represent the diversity of their nation, let along of the planet whose emissaries they were portrayed to be.

Women, celebrated across cultures as holding half the sky, took a long time to travel beyond the sky to outer space.

Although a Russian (Valentina Tereshkova) had become the first woman in space early on in 1963, it took the Americans another 20 years to have their first woman astronaut: Sally Ride, who traveled to Earth orbit on the Space Shuttle in June 1983.

A recent British documentary reveals how America could have sent a woman to the Moon during the Apollo programme. It reveals, belatedly, one of history’s great might-have-beens.

She Should Have gone To The Moon (58 mins, 2008), written and directed by Ulrike Kubatta isn’t quite story that the American space agency NASA would like to be reminded of as it marks Apollo 11’s 40th anniversary.

Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?

Jerri Truhill, astronaut in training: Not 'monkey enough' for men who ran NASA?

The film tells the astonishing story of the pilot and pioneer, Jerri Truhill, who was trained in 1961, as part of NASA’s top secret Mercury 13 programme, to become on of the first woman astronauts. The documentary is a lyrical journey propelled by childhood aspirations, shattered dreams and a lifelong battle against female sterotypes and male prejudice.

Truhill tells how the women outperformed men in all the training tests (including water tank isolation) but how ultimately, the authorities, with the approval of President Johnson, stipulated that they would “rather send monkeys into space than a woman”.

In the film, the tough talking and sharp witted Jerri Truhill looks back at her compelling life via a phone call with the film-maker. This conversation becomes the catalyst for the director’s imagining of key events in Truhill’s potent narrative and inspires a journey to meet the heroine in Texas. Along the way the film-maker places herself in Truhill’s story, first wandering across the surreal landscape of White Sands and then suspended in zero gravity inside a water tank.

Included are staged scenes, dreamt-up moments from Truhill’s story, which evoke the popular melodrama of 1950s American cinema. These fictional moments bridge the gaps of time and distance between the filmmaker and her subject. Their stylised and dreamlike quality is counterpointed by shots from both Truhill’s and NASA’s film archive. The various strands produce the film’s heady timeline, as they circle through real and imagined spaces, past and present.

I can’t locate any part of the film that allows embedding on to WordPress blog platform. But you can watch official trailer for She should have gone to the Moon on IMDB

On LEEDVD.TV’s YouTube channel, I found this segment of another documentary named Rocket Girl, but Google does not bring up too much other info about this film.

Watch Rocket Girl, part 1

Read American National Public Radio’s coverage: Women’s Space Dreams Cut Short, Remembered

Read NASA’s own website profiles of women’s accomplishments in space

Seven of the “Mercury 13” gathered at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. In the photo below, from left to right, are: Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. They came to watch Eileen Collins become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle. NASA has come a long way.

Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image

Mercury 13 women reunion in 1995 - NASA image

As I wrote in May 2009, the path-breaking TV series Star Trek, which started airing on television in the US in September 1966, was way ahead of reality. When neither the mainstream television nor the space programme reflected America’s true diversity, Star Trek created a multi-ethnic crew for the Starship Enterprise, roaming the universe in the 23rd century. It included an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and a super intelligent alien, the half-Vulcan Spock.

Reality took a long time catching up. It was only in August 1983 that Guion “Guy” Bluford, Jr., became the first black American astronaut. Another nine years passed before Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to go to space, when she joined a Space Shuttle mission in September 1992. In fact, she cited Star Trek character Uhura as an influence in her decision to pursue a career in space.

Multi-cultural crews did not become commonplace until the late 1990s, when the International Space Station became operational. Space travel has yet to reach the utopian ideals of Star Trek.

Images related to ‘She should have gone to the Moon’ courtesy Ulrike Kubatta. Other images courtesy NASA

Reporting disasters: How to keep a cool head when all hell breaks loose

WCSJ London

News by definition looks for the exception. What goes right, and according to plan, is hardly news. Deviations, aberrations and accidents hit the news.

It’s the same with disasters. Reducing a hazard or averting a disaster does not make the news; when that hazard turns into a disaster, that typically tops the news. Yet, as we discussed during a session at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London from June 30 – July 2, 2009, both aspects are important — and both present many challenges to journalists and the media.

The session, titled Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka, saw three science journalists share their own experiences and insights in covering two major disasters in Asia. Richard Stone (Asia News Editor, Science) and Hujun Li (senior science writer with Caijing magazine, China) both spoke about covering the Sichuan earthquake that occurred on 12 May 2008. I spoke on my experiences in covering the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004. The session was chaired by the veteran (and affable) British journalist Tim Radford, who has been The Guardian‘s arts editor, literary editor and science editor.

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

Covering a disaster from Sichuan to Sri Lanka: L to R: Hujun Li, Nalaka Gunawardene and Richard Stone

I recalled the post-tsunami media coverage in two phases — breaking news phase (first 7 – 10 days) and the aftermath, which lasted for months. When the news broke on a lazy Sunday morning, ‘Tsunami’ was a completely alien term for most media professionals in Sri Lanka. In newspaper offices, as well as radio and TV studios, journalists suddenly had to explain to their audiences what had happened, where and how. This required journalists to quickly educate themselves, and track down geologists and oceanographers to obtain expert interpretation of the unfolding events. We than had to distill it in non-technical terms for our audiences.

My involvement in this phase was as a regular ‘TV pundit’ and commentator on live TV broadcasts of MTV Channels, Sri Lanka’s largest and most popular broadcast network. Night after night on live TV, we talked about the basics of tsunami and earthquakes, and summed up the latest information on what had taken place. We also acknowledged the limits of science -– for example, despite advances in science and technology, there still was no way of predicting earthquakes in advance.

One question we simply couldn’t answer was frequently raised by thousands of people who lost their loved ones or homes: why did it happen now, here — and to us? Was it an act of God? Was it mass scale karma? As science journalists, we didn’t want to get into these debates — we had to be sensitive when public emotions were running high.

There were enough topics during the breaking news phase that had a scientific angle. Clinically cold as it sounded, the mass deaths required the safe, proper and fast burial of bodies with identities established. The survivors had to be provided shelter, food, safe drinking water and counselling. And when rumours were spreading on the possibility of further tsunamis, both officials and public needed credible information from trusted, competent sources.

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

Tsunami waves lashing Kalutara beach on western Sri Lanka on 26 December 2004: satellite image courtesy DigitalGlobe Quickbird satellite, http://www.digitalglobe.com

After the breaking news phase passed, we had more time to pursue specific stories and angles related to the tsunami. As an environmentally sensitive journalist, I was naturally interested in how the killer waves had impacted coastal ecosystems. Then I heard some interesting news reports – on how some elements of Nature had buffered certain locations from Nature’s own fury.

Within days, such news emerged from almost all Tsunami-affected countries. They talked about how coral reefs, mangroves and sand dunes had helped protect some communities or resorts by acting as ‘natural barriers’ against the Tsunami waves. These had not only saved many lives but, in some cases, also reduced property damage. Scientists already knew about this phenomenon, called the ‘greenbelt effect’. Mangroves, coral reefs and sand dunes may not fully block out tsunamis or cyclones, but they can often reduce their impact.

Researching this led to the production of TVE Asia Pacific‘s regional TV series called The Greenbelt Reports, which was filmed at a dozen tsunami impacted locations in South and Southeast Asia. By the time we released the series in December 2006, sufficient time had passed for the affected countries to derive environmental lessons of the tsunami.

The other big story I closely followed was on early warnings for rapid on-set disasters like tsunamis. Some believed that the tsunami caught Indian Ocean rim countries entirely by surprise, but that wasn’t quite true. While the countries of South and Southeast Asia were largely unprepared to act on the tsunami, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) in Hawaii, who had detected the extraordinary seismic activity, did issued a tsunami warning one hour after the undersea quake off western Sumatra. This was received at Sri Lanka’s government-run seismological centre in good time, but went unheeded: no one reacted with the swiftness such information warranted. Had a local warning been issued, timely coastal evacuation could have saved thousands.

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Views from Ground Zero of several disasters...

Part of my sustained coverage focused on logistical, technological and socio-cultural challenges in delivering timely, credible and effective early warnings to communities at risk. I did this by writing opinion essays on SciDev.Net and elsewhere, partnering in the HazInfo action research project in Sri Lanka, and leading the Communicating Disasters Asian regional project. A lasting outcome is the multi-author book on Communicating Disasters that I co-edited in December 2007.

All this shows the many and varied science or development stories that journalists can find in the aftermath of disasters. Some of these are obvious and widely covered. Others need to be unearthed and researched involving months of hard work and considerable resources. Revisiting the scenes of disasters, and talking to the affected people weeks or months after the event, often brings up new dimensions and insights.

My own advice to science journalists was that they should leave the strictly political stories to general news reporters, and instead concentrate on the more technical or less self-evident facets in a disaster. During discussion, senior journalist Daniel Nelson suggested that all disaster stories are inherently political as they deal with social disparities and inequalities. I fully agreed that a strict separation of such social issues and science stories wasn’t possible or desirable. However, science journalists are well equipped to sniff out stories that aren’t obviously covered by all members of the media pack that descends on Ground Zero. Someone needs to go beyond body counts and aid appeals to ask the hard questions.

As Hujun Li said recalling the post-Sichuan quake experience, “Politics and science are like twins – we can’t separate the two. What we as science journalists can do is to gather scientific evidence and opinion before we critique official policies or practices.”

Another question we were asked was how journalists can deal with emotions when they are surrounded by so much death and destruction in disaster scenes. Reference was made to trauma that some reporters experience in such situations.

I said: “We are human beings first and journalists next, so it’s entirely normal for us to be affected by what is happening all around us. On more than one occasion in the days following the tsunami, I spoke on live television with a lump in my throat; I know of presenters who broke down on the air when emotions overwhelmed them.”

SciDev.Net blog post: Finding the science in the midst of disaster

And now...the sequels

And now...the sequels

Summing up, Tim Radford emphasized the need for the media to take more interest in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), which basically means preventing disasters or minimising the effects of disasters.

“DRR is perhaps less ‘sexy’ for the media, as it involves lots of policies and practices sustained over time,” he said. “But the potential to do public good through these interventions is enormous.”

As Tim reminded us, disasters already exact a terrible and enduring toll on the poorest countries. This is set to get worse as human numbers increase and climate change causes extreme weather and creates other adverse impacts. Living with climate change would require sustained investments in DRR at every level.

Read Tim Radford on how disasters hit the poor the hardest (The Guardian, 22 May 2009).

The stories are out there to be captured, analysed and communicated. In the coming years, the best stories may well turn out to be on disasters averted or minimised

Nollywood rising: Low cost, high volume film industry entertains Africa

Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'

Lights, camera...budget action! Image courtesy 'This Is Nollywood'

Here’s a general knowledge question: Everyone knows India’s Bollywood is the world’s largest producer of movies (by number). Which country’s movie industry comes second?

If you said Hollywood, that’s a dated answer. America’s movie industry used to be the second largest in the world — until an unlikely contender turned up from…Nigeria!

India remains the world’s leading film producer but Nigeria is closing the gap after overtaking the United States for second place, according to a global cinema survey conducted by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Bollywood produced 1,091 feature-length films in 2006 compared to 872 productions (in video format) from Nigeria’s film industry, commonly referred to as Nollywood. In contrast, the United States produced 485 major films.

The three heavyweights were followed by eight countries that produced more than 100 films: Japan (417), China (330), France (203), Germany (174), Spain (150), Italy (116), South Korea (110) and the United Kingdom (104).

Nigerian filmmakers rely on video instead of film to reduce production costs. And as the survey points out, Nigeria has virtually no formal cinemas. About 99% of screenings occur in informal settings, such as “home theatre”.

This is Nollywood

This is Nollywood

The UNESCO survey reveals another key element of the Nigerian success story: multilingualism. About 56% of Nollywood films are produced in Nigeria’s local languages, namely Yoruba (31%), Hausa (24%) and Igbo (1%). English remains a prominent language, accounting for 44%, which may contribute to Nigeria’s success in exporting its films.

Nollywood’s rising has been chronicled in a 2007 documentary by Franco Sacchi and Robert Caputo. Called This is Nollywood, it tells the story of the Nigerian film industry – a revolution enabling Africans with few resources to tell African stories to African audiences. Despite all odds, Nigerian directors produce between 500 and 1,000 movies a year. The disks sell wildly all over the continent – Nollywood actors have become stars from Ghana to Zambia.

Says Zambia-born director Franco Sacchi: “When I first read about Nigerian directors producing hundreds of feature-length films with digital cameras, a week, and a few thousand dollars, I found the subject irresistible. Here was not only a rare positive story about Africa, but one that embodied the egalitarian promise of digital technology—anybody can make a movie. And Nollywood was virtually unknown.”

This is Nollywood takes us behind the sets and scenes in one Nigerian movie being made on the cheap — and fast. Acclaimed director Bond Emeruwa sets out to make a feature-length action film in just nine days. Armed only with a digital camera, two lights, and about $20,000, Bond faces challenges unimaginable in Hollywood and Bollywood.

Emeruwa says: “We are telling our own stories in our own way, our Nigerian way, African way. I cannot tell the white man’s story. I don’t know what his story is all about. He tells me his story in his movies. I want him to see my stories too.”

Watch This is Nollywood: Movie Trailer

I then came across this TED Talk by Franco Sacchi, where he takes us through Nollywood (at the time he gave his talk, the world’s third largest and now second only to Bollywood). He talks about ‘guerrilla film-making’ and brilliance under pressure from crews that can shoot a full-length feature in a week.

Welcome to Nollywood is another 2007 documentary film, directed by Jamie Meltzer, that looked at the Nigerian film industry. Its findings were similar to those of This is Nollywood. Traveling to the country’s chaotic capitol, Lagos, Meltzer spent ten weeks following three of Nigeria’s hottest directors, each different in personality and style, as they shot their films about love, betrayal, war, and the supernatural.

At around US$250 million per year (and rising), Nollywood’s capital outlay is far below that of Hollywood and Bollywood. For perspective, that’s a bit less than what it cost to make Spiderman 3 in 2007 (budget: US$ 258 million) — the second most expensive film made. See list of most expensive Hollywood films.

Telling their own stories....

Telling their own stories....

But what it lacks in capital, Nollywood more than makes up in numbers and mass appeal. As the Wikipedia notes, Nigerian directors adopt new technologies as soon as they become affordable. Bulky videotape cameras gave way to their digital descendents, which are now being replaced by HD cameras. Editing, music, and other post-production work is done with common computer-based systems.

As Colin Freeman wrote in the Daily Telegraph, UK: “While the likes of Serpent in Paradise and Evil Finger may not be as slick as their Hollywood counterparts, they offer one thing that the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt can never provide: characters and stories with which an African audience can identify.”

And according to The Economist, it all started in 1992, when Kenneth Nnebue, a Nigerian trader based in Onitsha, was trying to sell a large stock of blank videocassettes he had bought from Taiwan. He decided that they would sell better with something recorded on them, so he shot a film called “Living in Bondage” about a man who achieves power and wealth by killing his wife in a ritualistic murder, only to repent later when she haunts him. The film sold more than 750,000 copies, and prompted legions of imitators.

The rest, as they say, is now Nollywood history.

Read my August 2007 blog post: “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”