Benjamin Reeves | February 21 2013 4:52 EST
The past several weeks have had their share of apocalyptic scenarios in the news — Russian meteor strikes, asteroid 2012DA14 passing earth, the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph breaking down in the Gulf of Mexico and North Korea testing a nuclear weapon. All of these stories have captured people's imaginations, yet the time and popular attention showered on the cruise ship, meteor and asteroid far outweigh the focus on North Korea's nuclear test.
CNN has been roundly lampooned for its coverage of by the likes of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart and Late Show With David Letterman executive producer Eric Stangel. Stewart, for instance said CNN treated the stalled Triumph like it was “the Shackleton expedition” with its days of nearly non-stop coverage.
Dash-cam footage of the Russian meteor was a staple of the morning shows and late night coverage last week when it blazed through the Siberian skies. Famed popular physicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson appeared on NPR and PBS to discuss the near earth passing of asteroid 2012DA14.
North Korea's nuclear test, however, seemed to get lost in the noise. Yes, it received plenty of hard news coverage and had its moment in the pages of all of the national newspapers of record. Yet the level public interest and hysteria over the nuclear test never reached the level of the asteroid passing, the meteor careening through the skies or a cruise ship with nothing but onions to eat. Why?
The answer may lie in the type of apocalyptic disaster each event could presage and our ability to prevent them. The cruise ship, for instance, while a horrifying event bringing up images and ideas about the breakdown of technology and society, was essentially inconsequential. The fabric of society was not rent by the breakdown of a cruise ship, and the world will continue as it was before.
Likewise for the meteor strike. It was evocative television. Flames in the sky, screams of terror, a sonic book, but again, the earth has not been baked to a crisp, there is no inescapable hellscape of fire. It is a disaster avoided, and a disaster that could not be averted. The same is true of the asteroid. Although an asteroid striking the earth could wipe out all civilization and life, we do not currently think of it as something we could prevent. An asteroid passing close by the earth is an exciting brush with death, something that we cannot stop, and so we sit back and watch as voyeurs.
The same is not true of North Korea testing an atomic bomb, and that is why it is not seen as entertaining news. Rather it is the sobering, terrifying news of an event, perhaps preventable by political means, which could be a step on the path to nuclear holocaust. Unlike with asteroid 2012DA14, we hold our governments responsible for preventing nuclear proliferation, nuclear testing and nuclear war. We feel that nuclear war is something preventable. Thus a brush with nuclear death is not spine tingling and is not entertainment, like a cruise ship or a meteor. It could destroy all life as we know it. An asteroid could too, but we don't think we can stop it.
The events of the past several weeks have emphasized more than ever the difference in how we perceive the possibility of apocalypse. Events that are unstoppable or inconsequential become thrilling entertainment. Events that we feel we could prevent, are terrifying. They are not entertaining, and the result is that the public and media seem to prefer not to think about them.