The World Is on Fire -- Are We Fiddling While It Burns?

03/13/2011 07:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think about it -- the earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear disasters in Japan; the earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile and Haiti; revolutions and protests in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, and Oman; slaughter in the Ivory Coast by a brutal dictator; continued fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in the U.S., the largest demonstration ever over worker rights in Wisconsin, flooding in Kentucky, rising oil prices, and tsunami damage in California.

It's hard not to conclude that this is an impossibly difficult time for us and for the rest of the world. Is the U.S. responding appropriately you might ask? Is the president "fiddling" while the world seems to explode with danger and disaster, particularly in the Mideast? What would we want the president to do and say that would make us feel less unsettled and helpless? There are two distinct views on the administration's approach. One view is that Obama is being prudent and wise not to rush to judgment in Libya, but instead putting pressure on Libya via the international community and keeping "all options on the table". That whatever he is doing in private will only be successful if it is kept private. The other view is that the administration is too cautious and timid, leaving the Libyans and Yemenis to fight and die while the U.S. tries to rustle up international support for the protestors in these countries. The truth is that we don't know, can't know, and shouldn't know what is being done behind the scenes, because much of that effort must be kept secret to be effective.

Still, it is easy enough to want and demand action, particularly as we read minute by minute Twitter messages about what is going on in Libya and elsewhere. The ability of Facebook and Twitter to keep us painfully up to date on every movement of Libyan protest efforts and every second of the potential nuclear disaster in Japan, demands that either "something" be done or that we turn away and cocoon.

I understand the risks involved in trying to save Libya by ourselves, and I understand that it takes time to get an international coalition to agree on what to do. Getting to earthquake and tsunami survivors also takes time, and the agony of people waiting to be rescued is hard to watch. The fact that news, when you can get it, is so instant and compelling, makes it even harder to accept waiting for action on the part of our leaders. The wait makes the "fiddling" accusation gain ground, particularly by those who find it easy to demand action but don't take the time to understand the consequences of those actions.

Cable news is stretched almost beyond its ability to cover Japan and the Middle East, much less Africa. Can we realistically expect our president and Congress (and the media that follow them) to multi-task to this degree? Can we solve our budget issues, keep our government operating, protect worker rights in half a dozen states, keep health reform going, keep NPR, public broadcasting, and Planned Parenthood alive? And still save the world or even one part of it? Is it just me or is this truly overload?

What I do know is that given the dozen or more important issues we need to be addressing, the propensity of cable and network news to focus on trivial stuff is almost without parallel. If you just arrived on the planet and flipped through the channels in your hotel room, you would think that unsolved murders, abortion, Charlie Sheen, the 2012 election, March Madness and bad weather were the only important things going on. Ok, maybe not March Madness. But what should we be paying attention to? What should our priorities truly be?

I am not asking for an invasion of Libya or even that we take the lead in earthquake rescues in Japan. But in addition to working behind the scenes, these are times that require our leaders to reassure us about what is being done and to do that publicly and frequently. I haven't heard anything from Secretary Clinton for days (although her husband did come out in favor of a no-fly zone -- was that intentional or a mistake?). Obama's press conference a few days ago was, well -- a few days ago.

I suppose that the advisors to the president and Secretary Clinton believe that delegating "updates" to the Press Secretaries, Jay Carney and whoever will replace State Department's PJ Crowley, are enough for us. That if the "principals" appear on TV too often, we will stop listening to them or we will panic or worry unnecessarily. Au contraire. They are the ones I most want to hear from, even if all they can tell me is that they are working on this day and night. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper may be on TV practically 24/7, but they are not my leader. Please, Mr. President. Talk to us!