By Donella Meadows
–May 16, 1996–
May is “sweeps month” in the world of commercial television. Sample counts of how many people watch which programs determine advertising rates for the coming season. It’s a time when network news programs get splashy and move their anchors around the world. Last week NBC’s “Today” was broadcast from Ireland. This week ABC’s “Good Morning America” came to us from Canada, “The World Next Door.”
Normally such a venture on “Good Morning America” would lead off with resident geographer Harm de Blij (it’s a Dutch name, pronounced “de Blay”) showing maps and giving us a geographic introduction to the place. But de Blij wasn’t there this week. He hasn’t shown up on “Good Morning America” for months now.
ABC came to have its own geographer back in the mid-1980s, when a spurt of stories appeared about the geographic illiteracy of American school kids. You probably remember. They couldn’t point to Vietnam on a world map. Some of them couldn’t even point to America.
An ABC producer, disturbed by the possible role of TV in perpetrating this ignorance, called de Blij (a former editor at the National Geographic Society and author of the most widely used college geography textbook) and asked, “What would you do if you had a minute now and then to talk on TV about geography?”
De Blij, who is nothing if not passionate about geography, asked for more than a minute. After some negotiation he got 7-8 minutes every morning for a week to show how geography affects the news. He explained why the soil of the Midwest is so rich. Why Europe is joining together into a regional union while falling apart in Yugoslavia. How Canberra came to be the capital of Australia. Why cities have suburbs. He showed a map of the world where the countries were sized not according to their geographic area, but according to their populations.
The audience loved it. ABC signed him on as a regular.
They put him in a helicopter to fly over the Mississippi flood and discuss how it was worsened by changes in land use. He stood on the waterfront in Hong Kong interviewing people about the impending Chinese takeover. Would they leave? Where would they go? He broadcast from the southern shore of Tasmania and the Mendenhall glacier in Alaska. He did segments on the northward advance of killer bees and whether Puerto Rico should become a state. On the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Europe from the Nazis, he went back to the village of Soestdijk in the Netherlands, where, as a child, he had huddled in a basement for three weeks waiting for the coming of the American army.
He always had maps. People love maps. They wrote to the network asking, “Why didn’t you keep the map on longer so I could get a good look at it? Where can I get a copy? When is that geography guy coming back?”
De Blij was ready with his maps when Operation Desert Storm moved into the Persian Gulf. In fact he saw the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait coming, just by watching maps. “Iraq had been publishing maps for years showing Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province,” he says. “I call it cartographic aggression. U.S. embassies used to have geographic attaches looking for that sort of thing. If they still had such people, they’d see that the Chinese are doing maps right now showing parts of Russia as Chinese.”
De Blij not only popped up on the morning show, he also kept ABC news Geographically Correct. During the Gulf War the other networks wrongly showed a diamond-shaped “neutral zone” between Iraq and Saudi, but ABC got it right, because De Blij knew that the zone had been divided between the two countries in 1973. He knew that the U.S. plane recently shot down by the Cubans was in fact in Cuban air space, because Cuba defines its 12-mile limit by drawing straight lines across bays, instead of duplicating the coastline 12 miles out.
ABC didn’t get that one right (nor did any other network), because about six months ago they stopped calling on Harm de Blij. His steady stream of faxes with geographic ideas and advice seemed to go nowhere. His contract with the network will expire at the end of this month, and no one has said a word to him about renewing it.
One can speculate that ABC’s sudden loss of interest in geography is just one more shift in the short attention span of television; as quirky and accidental as the shift eight years ago that put de Blij on the screen in the first place.
Or maybe it has to do with the takeover of ABC by Disney and one of those cost-cutting surges that corporations get into.
Or maybe it’s just one more small step in the continuous dumbing-down of television. The producers with whom de Blij worked have left or been fired in the past few months, and one of the new higher-ups has been heard to say: “I’m a youth guy and a looks guy.” One hopes that somewhere in the high reaches of ABC news there’s still a “facts guy.”
Anyhow, nowadays you can turn on “Good Morning America” and see lots of youth, lots of looks, a bloody accident, or a two-headed girl, but not a geographer.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996