The media jumped on the story, of course, recounting stomach-churning tales of the sights, sounds, and smells aboard the stricken vessel, perhaps as much for the shock value as for the actual relevance of the story.
From my perspective, there are two points of discussion to take from this.
One, of course, is the public relations disaster that Carnival will face in the aftermath of the mishap, epitomized by this Onion headline from last Wednesday.
Fortunately for the cruise-line giant, the story probably won't have much of a shelf life. There might be some twisted novelty to reading about a hapless group of travelers who are forced to poop in plastic bags for a few days — but the ship did make it back to port, and no one died, so public memory of the incident will likely fade fairly quickly.
The other takeaway, in my view, is a missed opportunity by the media. Nicholas Kristof from the New York Times summed it up as such on his Facebook page: "Just to put the cruise ship fiasco in perspective, the nightmare that those passengers have endured for the last few days is roughly what 1 billion people endure every day."
His remarks generated a wide range of responses — from agreement and appreciation for the reminder, to outrage that he would guilt-trip or trivialize the plight of those who were aboard the ill-faded ship.
Certainly, I don't think the latter was Kristof's intent; and no one is arguing that the circumstances faced by the cruise passengers didn't suck. But sometimes, when the mainstream media catch on to a story like this one — which appeals to the emotions and sensibilities of viewers, because we can all envision ourselves in such a scenario — it's necessary to use the momentum to draw attention to a broader issue that wouldn't otherwise get any airtime at all.
|Maybe we shouldn't look at this room of the |
house the same way anymore.
Coincidentally, at about the same time that raw sewage was sloshing through the living quarters of the Carnival Triumph, the viral video above featuring Matt Damon was released. (If you're reading this from email, click through to the post to see it.) In a humorous and somewhat irreverent way, he draws attention to the crisis while noting that one invention we all seem to take for granted — the toilet — has saved more lives than any other.
Think about this for a second and what it means for you. How many times in a single day do you make use of the toilet? (Don't answer that here.) What would you do if you didn't have one? Or what if you did, but you had no water to use to flush it, or no sewage system to carry away the waste?
What if you didn't even have a plastic bag, like the passengers did on the Triumph? In many parts of the developing world, people don't. So they just go where they are.
Again, no one is trying to make light of what happened to the passengers on the cruise ship. But this story does raise some challenging questions that we should wrestle with as some of the wealthiest inhabitants of this planet.
For example, why do the American mainstream media espouse a mentality in which it's presumed that everyone has access to clean water and sanitation — and that any departure from this standard, if only for a few thousand people, is worthy of national headlines?
And why are we, as media consumers, so captivated by such a story? Is it because of the gross factor? Or because we could see ourselves as passengers on that ship? Or both?
Finally, if we're so taken by the story of about 4,000 American citizens stuck aboard a cruise vessel without working toilets for a few days, would we be equally alarmed by news of hundreds of millions in African villages who deal with this all the time?
Yes, the answers to all of these should be fairly obvious. But they should also make us feel convicted.
It's true that the story of the Triumph disaster will fade from memory in short order. Before it does altogether, though, we'd be wise to take a moment to be thankful for what we have — and take some action for those who go without.