Thursday, December 11, 2008

Planet In Peril: Battle Lines

Hi everyone. Well, a year's worth of work from our CNN friends has finally been viewed by the public and I think they should be quite proud of themselves. Once again, they've managed to produce an educational, engaging, and aesthetically intriguing documentary. Very snazzy intro and transitional graphics. And how nice was it to actually be able to see your whole television screen? Oh sure, there was occasional pimping going on at the bottom, but for the most part our viewing experience was blessedly clutter free.

The special kicks off in Central Africa where rising food prices have forced people farther into the forests in search of bushmeat to feed their families. Bushmeat, by the way, consists of critters, some of them cute little monkeys. Yes, I am sad. But people have to eat and unfortunately the slaughter of furry friends is not the big picture problem here. Both Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta go on separate hunts for bushmeat and as they learn from an epidemiologist, the animals being sought can contain nasty viruses--some possibly transferable to humans.

We've seen it happen before, most notably with HIV. That particular virus is believed to have started in a chimp in Cameroon in the 1900's. However, it wasn't until air travel boomed in the 1980's that it became a global pandemic. It's pretty scary to realize that something lurking in the middle of a forest in Cameroon could be infecting a major American city within a mere 48 hours or so. One bright spot is that when our hunters come across another group of hunters that actually were successful in their quest for bushmeat, it's discovered that they're carrying filter papers to have the animals' blood tested. At least some of the preventative education is working.

From here, Anderson and Sanjay go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where people are being quarantined due to monkey pox. Yes, monkey pox. It looks like a fairly nasty thing to have. We're shown video of a woman who has the pox, but apparently she was too contagious to interview or something. I don't know. It seems weird that they went to the Congo just for this, but perhaps a lot of footage got cut.

Switching reporters now, we travel with Lisa Ling to Nigeria to learn about the fight over oil going on in the Niger Delta. Her goal is to meet with the group MEND, which stands for the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Nigeria is very oil rich and MEND believes the people should get to reap some of the benefits and they're willing to make their case by whatever means possible, even if it means targeting the government and taking oil company employees hostage.

Longtime 360 viewers might remember former CNNer Jeff Koinange also did some reporting on MEND. Of course, then there were questions about his reporting and then there was a woman and then there was an alleged relationship and then there were blog posts and then there was scandal(!) and then there was you're fired! The moral of the story? Never scorn a woman with a blog. Ahem. Anyway! Lisa goes on a long boat ride to a super-seekret meeting with MEND and when she finally gets there they're shooting the hell all over the place, just because they can, I guess. Man, Lisa is fearless.

In a quasi-comic twist, one of the MEND gets accidentally shot. Good lord. These guys may be rag tag idiots, but you can somewhat sympathize with their cause when you see what the oil companies have wrought. Take Shell for example; they let a pipeline just leak for three months, ruining the environment. The communities around the delta rely on fishing, and 6,000 oil spills since the mid 70's have made that mighty hard. I love that CNN is taking Shell to task on this. Lisa even tries to meet with the head of the company in Nigeria, but the meeting is canceled. This was some great reporting by Lisa.

From the Delta, we hook back up with Sanjay and take a trip to La Oroya, Peru, one of the world's most polluted places. To state it plainly, smoke stacks from the town's Doe Run smelter are poisoning the community and causing 98 percent of the children to have elevated lead counts. Sanjay tells us he can feel the pollution affecting him after only one day; image being a child and living there. There have been complaints that have resulted in improvement, but for the most part, the company is still poisoning the town.

One reason this hasn't turned into a full fledged fight against Doe Run is that the company is the largest employer in town, putting the people in a dilemma of choosing between earning a living and basic health, a choice no one should have to make. The twist in this story is that Doe Run has a sister company located in Herculaneum, Missouri, and shocker of shockers, they've somehow managed not to poison the Missouri kids. This makes one wonder if perhaps the people of La Oroya just aren't all that important to Doe Run's parent company, The Renco Group, founded by Ira Rennert (more calling out. yay!). Again, some great investigative work here.

We next leave the polluted air of La Oroya and tag along with Lisa to Costa Rica, Cocos Island to be specific. The focus at hand is on sharks, 100 million of which are killed around the world every year. The murders are committed in order to get their fins, which are then used to make shark fin soup, popular in Asia. Lisa notes that we should care about this because sharks are the top predator in the food chain and to lose them could collapse the whole ecosystem. I think we should care simply because the process of finning is horrific. They catch the poor sharks on hooked lines, slice off their fins, and then toss them back in the ocean where they have no other choice but to sink and drown. Again, horrific.

Lisa and crew then follow the fins to Asia and we see thousands of them at a port in Taiwan. But apparently the workers there are not too fond of cameras. That might have something to do with the fact that the industry depends on customer demand for the soup. If you knew something you ate was not only brutally killed, but might become extinct, would you still order the same thing for lunch?

Back to Anderson now, and he's taking us off the coast of South Africa where we get a little more up close and personal with our great white shark friends. Well, he does anyway. He does a little cage diving, which is apparently a tourist draw. This is not without some controversy. Some feel that throwing chum (that lovely blood and guts nastiness) in the water to bait the sharks is actually teaching them to eat people. Which, you know, kinda a bad thing.

But others don't think the process is an issue and in fact, there's one crazy dude that even does the dives without a cage. Guess who's crazy enough to join him? You know who I'm talking about. White hair. Blue eyes. Cute, but with sporadic moments of nuttiness? And if those clues didn't tip you off, I'm sure the incessant CNN promotion and gazillion articles written about the cageless dive did.

Yes, Anderson has added sharks to our list of things we fear are going to kill him (list already containing hurricanes and bullets). Also, I love how he says "we decided" to do it. Um, you and who else? So anyway, he goes down and the first thing that happens is his weight belt falls off, which probably would have given me a coronary. I imagine at that moment his internal dialog was very Blagojevich-sounding. After that, he just pretty much chills on a rock and after some sharks swim by, that's that. Very cool. And thank you sharks for giving us back our anchor in one piece.

We next ditch Anderson and travel with Lisa to Eastern Chad for a closer look at the Ivory Wars being waged in Zakouma National Park. The elephants are under siege for their tusks, which can cost a pretty penny. As most of you know, neighboring Darfur is in a near lawless state, which compounds the problem. In other words, it's all about the benjamins. China and the U.S. are the top two markets for ivory and basically buyers are indirectly funding militias. In this segment we are treated to the sight of an elephant horde, but also see elephant carcasses, and even more disturbing, a fresh elephant kill. Awful. Truly awful.

For the final segment, we hook back up with Anderson for a story that contains a little hope. The mountain gorillas are a critically endangered species, but in Rwanda, they're a success story. After the horrendous genocide in the country in the 90's, the government decided to make protecting the gorillas the center of their tourism, offering people the opportunity to experience the majestic beasts up close. Locals were initially skeptical, but when the money started coming in, they jumped on board pretty quick.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where the rest of the gorillas are located) is another story. The country is in chaos and last year there was a horrible gorilla slaughter. Longtime viewers might remember that 360 saw the gorillas in the country in 2006 (check my archive), but since that time their habitat has been taken over and no one knows their status. Sad.

This time in Rwanda, Anderson and crew get to see a group of gorillas that are for research and not tourism. They're warned that these animals could potentially be aggressive, leading Anderson to say, "frankly, if they charge, I'm going to hide behind the biggest cameraman I can find." Neal!? But actually, the research group of gorillas isn't so much aggressive as they are, well, relaxed. They clearly aren't too concerned about their new human friends and would just like to take a nap, thank you very much. Okay, Anderson has gotten to see these gorillas how many times now? Yes, that's the green-eyed monster in your midst.

There's not really much else to say about the special. It was great. I hope they kick ass in the ratings. Sorry I was too lazy to post pictures, but you can find some here.

Finally, this has nothing to do with Planet in Peril, but I wanted to point you to this devastating and, quite frankly, heartbreaking must-read profile of Michael Ware. It's a very upsetting piece, though I can't say it contains anything that surprised me. I've often praised Michael on this blog because he's an unbelievable reporter, but one thing I've never mentioned is the more than one occasion I've watched one of his live remotes and wondered if he was lost forever. The profile just confirmed all of my fears. He's not doing well. We should never forget that the truth that war reporters bring us comes at a cost to them.

In a strange coincidence, about two hours before I read this profile, I was driving to perform an errand and noticed a box in the middle of my neighborhood street. Debris in the street is not unusual, but this box seemed so purposefully placed. As I drove by, the first thought that popped into my head was "IED." Of course, the thought was merely fleeting and never did I feel afraid. Just one of those fluke things no doubt brought on by too much reading of the subject. But as I drove, it got me thinking what it must be like for soldiers and others who have come home. When everyday for them is like what I experienced today, only magnified thousands of times over in intensity. When every box is a potential IED and every piece of trash a threat. I can't even imagine.

According to the profile, Michael is back stateside (at least he was in October) and is trying to spend less time in Iraq, both physically and mentally. I wish him well and hope that one day he truly finds his way home.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Also, I love how he says "we decided" to do it. Um, you and who else?"

Hee! I do so love your blogging.

And thanks again for the Michael Ware link. :(

5:36 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

Hi all. It seems this post has been linked to by Achenblog of the Washington Post. I found the blog's review of Planet in Peril particularly unfair and wanted to leave a response for those traveling from there over to my neck of the interwebs.

The blogger's argument is that Planet in Peril is "stunt journalism" and "entirely driven by visuals." Two of his examples are Lisa Ling's report on MEND and Anderson's shark diving.

I can't say I completely follow. The battle over oil in the Niger Delta is an important story. Yes, the gunshots made the segment more exciting. Was CNN not supposed to show that footage? Because besides being exciting, it also pointed to the fact that MEND isn't exactly a very disciplined group, which to me, kind of seems like an important part of the story. To leave it out would have been bad journalism. Also, as noted in my post, this is not the first time CNN has sent someone to meet with MEND and guess what. They shot at Jeff Koinange too. It's kind of their thing.

As for the shark-diving, I'll admit that the blogger has more of a leg to stand on. Was the cageless dive necessary to tell the story? No, probably not. But here's the thing, this is television. Competitive television. I myself might rage against the sometimes tendency in cable news of flash over substance, but even I realize that all the substance in the world is meaningless if no one is watching. You have to have a hook. Yes, Planet in Peril was visually stunning--and that's a good thing. It helped viewers connect with the information being given and kept them watching.

And there was substance in this special. Lots and lots of it, as you can find in my very long post. To say that Planet in Peril is simply eye candy and not educational is simply absurd. All three reporters did investigative legwork and spit facts at us galore.

I guess it should also be pointed out that no matter what he does, Anderson Cooper is dogged with the criticism that his work is all about himself. He could disguise his voice and read us facts from an encyclopedia with a bag over his head and this would still be the case, the narrative has become so ingrained. The story becomes about Anderson Cooper because others make the story about Anderson Cooper. That's not his fault. But unfortunately, I don't see the narrative ever changing.

The bottom line is that CNN has an occasional tendency to broadcast crap. A lot of crap. 360 included, which I document every night. But PIP was a quality production that should be praised and encouraged. Not snottily ripped apart.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Pati Mc said...

Amen Eliza.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Many of us here in Peru were awaiting the broadcast of "Planet in Peril: Battles Lines" with great interest, and now that the show's been aired, I was looking for reactions. Glad to come across your blog.

The show's segment on La Oroya was well done, in my opinion; as you mention, it drove home the point that Doe Run has two health standards: one for Americans (keep lead levels low) and another for Peruvians (poison 'em). The fact that this double standard was dramatized on U.S. television is very important for people living in this developing country: the suffering of people in Peru generally goes unnoticed and uncorrected.

As a U.S. reporter working in Peru, I know how difficult it is for news events to attract the attention of US viewers and readers. If CNN needs to stick Anderson Cooper in a shark cage to draw more viewers, I say, Fine.

There was a lot of excellent reporting in the 2-hour special. At a time when newsrooms in the US are gutting their staff and foreign correspondents, shows like PiP: Battle Lines are needed more than ever.

3:56 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@anonymous: Thanks for reading and you're welcome for the Ware link. I second your sad smiley.

@pati mc: Thanks.

@Barbara: Thanks for stopping by. It's interesting to hear from someone actually in the region. I agree that the report on La Oroya was particularly well done.

I had seen something previously regarding the situation in the town, but now I can't remember where exactly. Some Googling found that PBS's "Frontline" tackled the subject almost two years ago. I guess the situation hasn't changed since.

It would be great if CNN could follow up and really get the situation into the public's consciousness. Unfortunately, ratings for the special were poor. Apparently people are more interested in hearing about one little girl that's been missing for months. Pretty ironic when you think about all the children being sickened in Peru. *sigh* What are you gonna do?

2:45 AM  
Anonymous Barbara said...

Eliza, so sad to hear that PIP: Battle Lines had low ratings. I think you're right that "people are more interested in hearing about one little girl that's been missing for months. Pretty ironic when you think about all the children being sickened in Peru."

Still, for those of us here in Peru, the show was seen as a real advance in spreading word about the tragedy. I hope that journalists in the U.S. will go after Renco. That is a story worth following.

I'm linking to this blog post and comments on my website, An American in Lima ( Thanks Eliza and all!

1:19 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@Barbara--Yes, going by ratings, the show was a failure, but it's good to know it's reaching some people. The situation in Peru would make a good story for "60 Minutes." Sanjay Gupta actually has some sort of relationship with CBS (actually so does Anderson Cooper). It'd be cool if they could do a piece for that highly rated show.

Thanks for the link. I'm going to try to remember to link you back in my next post.

2:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anderson Cooper, and CNN, for doing the story about the Doe Run contamination both in Peru and here in Herculaneum, Missouri, USA.
I was a student in the Herculaneum School district, and remember when the contamination and pollution was so bad that there was a yellow haze in the air that tasted like I was sucking on a book of matches. Some days, the teachers would not even let us go outside for gym class because the air was 'too yellow'.
I have witnessed our community go up against Doe Run, and it has been an uphill climb to say the least.
I feel for the people of Peru, and know that they are going to need all the help they can get.
I APPLAUD you for doing this story! The Doe Run company needs to be exposed for the dirty way they operate and hurt people.
My heart goes out to that little community in Peru. I feel a kinship with their community, and hope they know that someone here is concerned about them.
More must be done for these people. Pressure should be put on this company to clean up it's act. They are filthy rich and don't seem to care that their filth spills over into the environment. Someone needs to force their hand and insist that they meet EPA regulations here in Herculaneum... and in La Oroya, Peru.

5:46 PM  
Blogger eliza said...

@anonymous: I am not in any way affiliated with CNN or Anderson Cooper. You've left a very nice comment. You should send it to CNN.

6:41 PM  
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