Too soon?

I’m a little behind on this story, or non-story, but I happened to be listening to LBC, London’s talk station, in the cab on the way to do my Zoe Ball slot this morning, just before 6.30, and I heard an extract from breakfast DJ Nick Ferrari’s show from earlier in the week – they run a best-of on Saturdays. It was, I’m afraid to say, typical of the kind of reactionary, kneejerk right wing shit-stirring that Ferrari is often accused of, and which I usually defend him against. I think he is actually a very powerful broadcaster with a commanding presence, newspaperman’s instinct for a story and a Londoner’s feel for his audience, and I have appeared on his show a couple of times to review the papers, so I’ve seen him at work. It’s clear where his political loyalties lie, but this does not preclude him from being an intelligent presenter, and there is a world of difference between him and Jon Gaunt, for instance. However, this was a seemingly defiant piece of ignorance, dressed as moral outrage.

Barack Obama, the headlines said, had compared the BP oil spill to the September 11 attacks. He hadn’t. But it made a good screamer; even the apparently cool-headed Guardian ran with, “Barack Obama compares oil spill to 9/11.” Which he didn’t. In fact, in an interview with the US website Politico, he said this:

“In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.”

Which is different to comparing it to 9/11, I trust you’ll agree. However, the right-wing, Obama-bashing American media picked up the ball and kicked it over the fence, contacting the families of those who perished in the September 11 attacks, reminding them of their loss and getting them to say that they were pretty upset that their president had compared their tragedy to an oil spill, which he hadn’t. “He’s off-base,” said former New York fire department deputy chief Jim Riches, whose son died at the World Trade Centre. “These were terrorist attacks, not something caused by people trying to make money.”

Well, let’s debate the intricacies of that statement another time. In brief, since Obama didn’t compare the oil spill to 9/11, he merely compared the effects it might have on perceptions of key issues, there is no need to examine the comparison. But this is what Nick Ferrari chose to do. His researchers had worked hard. He read out the death toll and all the financial costs of 9/11, in dollars; then he read out, for comparison (because it’s about time somebody actually compared the oil spill to 9/11), the death toll and financial costs of the oil spill, in pounds. Well, guess what? More people died in the former – around 2,900 more – and more money was lost.

To his credit, Ferrari was careful to say that it was a tragedy that 11 people had died because of the BP spill, but this hardly subtracted from his point, which was made with sledgehammer subtlety: 9/11 was really bad because it was caused by evil Arab terrorists, the oil spill is just slightly bad because it was caused by oil companies who are going to help us drive our cars and anyway, it’s mainly a few pelicans the tree-hugging environmentalists are getting het up about. And Obama was “grandstanding” and “playing to the gallery” by comparing the two. Which he would have been, had he compared the two.

I’m afraid this sorry little item made me think of all the bellowing right-wing shock jocks and Fox commentators in the US, the ones I’m constantly glad we don’t have; they get their teeth into a bone whose marrow is 100% agenda and won’t let go. They shout the loudest, and hope that their noise drowns out any gainsaying or common sense. Nick Ferrari is better than this approach, as I am always saying to people who knock him without listening to him. But it got worse. Balance ran for the hills. He had the mother of someone who died in the Twin Towers on the phone. She was outraged that the President had compared some pelicans to 9/11. She might well be, had he done so. But in fact, it was Nick Ferrari who had done it, not Obama. (Ferrari had even quoted Obama, as I have done, before launching into his needless tirade. Did anyone else spot that?)

This is not reasoned political debate. It’s the gleeful bashing by free-market climate change deniers of a Democrat president for something he didn’t do by those that think he’s a bit of a universal healthcare wuss. (I don’t think he’s perfect, by the way – he’s been something of a disappointment in many areas, but it’s impossible to live up to that kind of expectation. The irony is that Ferrari did his LBC shows from Chicago during Obama’s election, brilliantly reflecting the joy on the streets at this momentous time, and it made fantastic radio, for which he can be proud for the rest of his career.)

But here was the own goal, which almost made me yelp with excitement. Ferrari, having been red-faced with righteous anger on behalf of all those killed in the World Trade Center attacks (except the hijackers – he pointedly left them out of the death toll), and the opportunistic cheapness of comparing it to a little oil spill, then asked a man from Reuters, “Is this Obama’s Katrina?”

Is this Obama’s Katrina?

Nick Ferrari had just made an opportunistic and cheap comparison of the BP oil spill to the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, in which 1,836 people died, and in which $81 billion’s worth of damage was caused. Was he, by any chance, grandstanding and playing to the gallery?

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14 thoughts on “Too soon?

  1. Great piece Andrew. The media holds great power and to “shoot from the hip” without fully understanding the facts is massively dangerous. Then again what do you expect from a man who’s name is like bad 70’s play-on-words.

  2. I’m not sure what Obama’s motive was for making such a statement. While it has obviousy been deliberately taken out of context, surely he’s experienced enough to know that this would happen.

    Obama introduced the comparison to shock, he can’t complain when it’s twisted by his critics.

    • I can’t help but disagree with your assessment, Largeamericano – read the statement back. In what way is it “shocking”? If he was trying to “shock” it’s pretty tame to compare the effects of one thing to the effects of another.

      • I take your point, but think that 9/11 is such an emotive issue in the US that it can never be introduced into any context without having a strong effect.

        Seth MacFarlane satirised it well in Family Guy when a character was on the husting and discovered that all they had to do to raise a cheer and support was to keep repeating the phrase ‘9/11’.

        Why use a terrorist attack as an analogy anyway? If he wants a relevant comparison he should have used Union Carbide Bhopal disaster as an example? But then he wouldn’t do that, would he?

  3. I agree entirely, except for the part about Ferrari being professionally or morally superior to Fox commentators. In my opinion, he isn’t. Every time I’ve caught any of his show, the bawling idiocy and wilful ignorance of Ferrari and his callers has left me with the same despair to carry through the rest of the day as I get when I’ve seen a glimpse of Glenn Beck.

    Loving the show, Steve!

    Juliet x

  4. Nicely put Andrew.A good measured piece.

    Mr Ferrari is either clearly an idiot for running that story with such a loose grasp of the facts, or he is clearly following his own and his bosses agenda.

    How long before the right wing shock jock becomes all pervasive in this countryies broadcast media in the way it has become in the USA.

  5. I agree in principle with what you say Andrew. The media does this all the time to turn non stories into interesting ones.

    However, why did Obama even bother mentioning 9/11? You have to rememeber the honeymoon period for Obama is well and truly over. his approval rating at its lowest ebb. Rightly or wrongly he is getting critiscism from both Democrats and Republicans with his handling of this spill (he’s either too tough or not tough enough).

    Even mentioning 9/11 elicits feelings of sympathy for him that he is there defending America from external “attacks” and he is quite clearly (if not overtly) trying to paint “British Petroleum” as the nasty foreign “enemy” who is at fault (which they are but will the help of Hallibuton and the myriad of american sub contractors that run the site).

    Obamas comments are not made off the cuff. His team will have worded his comments with certain goals in mind.

  6. If the US does start to protect the environment with as much zeal as its borders then right-wing oil interests have plenty to fear.

  7. Andrew – very off topic – sorry.

    I saw that Ronald Neame died 😦

    Will you be doing your own ‘Obit’ here or at least a tribute to the Poseidon Adventure in his honour?

    I’m always intrigued why people such as yourself have films when those films are, to me usually dreadful or pedestrian or simply ‘average’.

    I had a couple friend who were very knowledgeable about films (real geeks) and had vast collections of all sorts. Yet when they were pinned down (after a few drinks it has to be said) one of them admitted to the Karate Kid being the one he would probably take to a desert island and the other (even more inexplicably to me) Coyote Ugly.

  8. I realise that your motive in writing this piece wasn’t about the original incident, but about the odd decision taken by Nick Ferrari and his team to use it as a springboard for a worthless and misleading rant.

    But frankly I think this is a stable door/horse scenario. Once someone invented the idea of 24-hour news, then this was the inevitable outcome – 24-hour instant opinion. And there can be no shades of grey here – it’s got to be “us” and “them” and no middle ground.

    This doesn’t seem to be much different to any other example, except, perhaps in that you had some respect for the broadcaster in question. Whereas I don’t see anything particularly new here at all, not even for the UK. As you note, Jon Gaunt (amongst others) has been trying to play this game for years and it really hasn’t worked all that well.

  9. Wilfull ignorance sums up Nick Ferrar; just ask Robin Ince.
    And before you throw that usual accusation, yes, I have heard his shows.

  10. Planes deliberately being flown into buildings isn’t the same as oil accidentally leaking into the sea. Clearly Obama could only be comparing the impact or the effects of the two. But even those are very obviously different. And the difference in nature of the two disasters makes even that comparison distasteful. Whatever point Obama was trying to make – and generally under analysis his words make about as much sense as Tony Blair’s used to – he was absolutely wrong to invoke September 11 here.
    None of which alters the fact that Nick Ferrari is an objectionable arse.

    • Obama was using the comparison to explain that a single catastrophic event is sometimes a catalyst for broad policy change. That’s all. It’s an entirely reasonable and appropriate parallel to draw.

      I could understand some concern if it had been less specific (referring to it as Nine Oil-even perhaps), but I think it’s pretty hard to misunderstand this particular statement.

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