Last night we had ABC World News on while getting dinner ready. The last story of the night was about "scavengers on the beach picking up a windfall from a sinking cargo ship." I immediately turned to my husband and said, "you mean stealing?" The piece was plugged before the commercial break as an amusing final story, Charlie Gibson's tone was one of lighthearted amusement and that was exactly how the piece played. Two hundred people on a beach carting off loot that had washed ashore, big stuff like BMW motorcycles, and useless stuff like a man carrying a steering wheel (not to mention bottles and cases of wine). We were told that things from the wreck were beginning to show up on ebay, we were shown helpless police encouraging people to register the items with the police but there were no arrests. The story went on to say that scavenging from shipwreaks in this area was a tradition that went back four generations! Locals used to lure ships to run aground on the rocks offshore by setting up deceptive lights to shine out to sea.
Again, its hard to put into the words the tone of the piece (and the video isn't available from ABC on their website) but it was one of goodnatured amusement at human nature; people just can't resist free stuff that appears like magic on the beach. Certainly there was no hint that these people were engaged in a criminal act (technically, you can take and store salvage from the sea while the original owners make recovery plans but it all remains the property of the original owners and you certainly can't legally sell it), or presented a threat to basic law and order, or a sign of a local culure run amok.
Did I mention that these folks were all white? British in fact.
White folk speaking English carting off goods (and liquor) for profit and amusement in southern England is not stealing or looting; it is comedic. While black folk facing floods, abandonment, complete lack of services, and all elements of life turned upside down during Katrina who broke into convenience stores to take water, diapers, food, (and liquor) were described as looters!! Horrible, criminal looters demonstrating not the government's failure to provide safety and basic welfare both before and after the storm but somehow spun to illustrate the degenerate nature of black people in New Orleans (and quietly implying that their fate was their own fault).
Four generations of luring ships to run aground to profit from the washed up cargo!! Yet no mention of culture of criminality or depravity or laziness or inability to think of other ways to make a living.
Imagine that story wasn't about England but about somewhere in Africa where a container ship has floundered and the cargo is washing up on shore, imagine an African place where the tradition is to encourage ships to crash to enrich the local population with the ship's cargo. Imagine pictures of black folk rolling motorcycles and car parts and crates of wine off the beach, imagine the crowded beach scenes and helpless police. Now, would that story be the final amusing human interest story? Would the anchor have good-natured amusement in his voice? Would the story be spun as an example of all-too-human foibles or would it be an entirely different story altogether?
Here is the wire story dated yesterday January 23 from ABC. Note, this is not the story that was broadcast (I'll have to hunt for a transcript for that) but it is the basis for the broadcast report. It lacks the tonal nuances and the bit about four generations of this practice but again, if this was set in Somolia say, or even South Africa, would it have such a neutral tone?
You can see another take on the story with pictures from al-Jazeera and Reuters. Note the difference in tone in the al-Jazeera story.