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Thursday, May 6

U.S. mainstream media ignored what could be the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history -- the Tennessee floods

CNN's extensive update on the flooding, filed at 1:47 PM EDT today, gives hope that the worst is behind Nashville, although as search teams get into remote flooded areas the death toll might continue to rise. The flood waters are receding and the weather has turned better, yet improved conditions only underscore the devastation left by the storms and floods.

The Nashville flood also leaves in its wake a controversy about the lack of national TV coverage of the disaster. Nashville is a U.S. capital, so there's no excuse. Today, in an attempt to address the issue, Newsweek's Andrew Romano wrote an editorial, which I feature below.

I could write several pages in reply to Mr Romano's mea culpa and I am sure many Americans could do the same. I note that the American blogs CMT and Uppity Woman have already made very pointed comments about the issue.

Although I began posting on May 2 on the breaking news about floods in three southeastern U.S. states, including Tennessee, I've been so busy this past week I've been unable to follow TV news. So it was not until the wee hours of this morning, when I caught a re-run of Anderson Cooper's Wednesday night show, that I realized there had been paltry national TV coverage of the floods, and that there was a public outcry about this.

I mentioned in my earlier post today that Anderson apologized on Wednesday about CNN's poor coverage of the floods. But I didn't realize until this afternoon that Anderson had been receiving Tweets from his viewers yesterday to protest the lack of coverage. That throws more light on his apology and assurance that he was traveling to Nashville this morning to do live coverage of the disaster.

All this said I appreciate Mr Romano's apology and consider his explanations a mostly sincere try, and thoughtful enough to merit highlighting on my blog. (I think complete sincerity would not have singled out MSNBC and Fox cable as examples of partisan news outlets. I know of no U.S. mainstream news outlet, including the notoriously partisan Newsweek, that has not turned strongly partisan.)

However, I find it disingenuous that Mr Romano, or at least the news industry, seems to expect public interest in a story to drive the media's coverage of it.

How, pray tell, can members of the public become interested in a story if they don't know its scope? That's what we depend on our mass media for: to alert us to important news and bring us its scope.

That Mr Romano starts his editorial with the words, "As you may have heard ..." underscores how poorly the mainstream media did in reporting on the scope of the Nashville disaster. Lucky that Anderson Cooper reads the Tweets he receives, or large numbers of Americans might still not have heard about the disaster in Nashville.

With that off my chest, I'll sit on the rest of my reply and give Mr Romano his say.
Why the Media Ignored the Nashville Flood
by Andrew Romano

As you may have heard, torrential downpours in the southeast flooded the Tennessee capital of Nashville over the weekend, lifting the Cumberland River 13 feet above flood stage, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage and killing more than 30 people. It could wind up being one of the most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history.

Or, on second thought, maybe you didn't hear. With two other "disasters" dominating the headlines -— the Times Square bombing attempt and the Gulf oil spill -— the national media seems to largely to have ignored the plight of Music City since the flood waters began inundating its streets on Sunday.

A cursory Google News search shows 8,390 hits for "Times Square bomb" and 13,800 for "BP oil spill." "Nashville flood," on the other hand, returns only 2,430 results—many of them local. As Betsy Phillips of the Nashville Scene writes, "it was mind-boggling to flip by CNN, MSNBC, and FOX on Sunday afternoon and see not one station even occasionally bringing their viewers footage of the flood, news of our people dying."

So why the cold shoulder?

I see two main reasons. First, the modern media may be more multifarious than ever, but they're also remarkably monomaniacal. In a climate where chatter is constant and ubiquitous, newsworthiness now seems to be determined less by what's most important than by what all those other media outlets are talking about the most. Sheer volume of coverage has become its own qualification for continued coverage. (Witness the Sandra Bullock-Jesse James saga.) In that sense, it's easy to see why the press can't seem to focus on more than one or two disasters at the same time. Everyone is talking about BP and Faisal Shahzad 24/7, the "thinking" goes. So there must not be anything else that's as important to talk about. It's a horrible feedback loop.

Of course, the media is also notorious for its ADD; no story goes on forever. Which brings us to the second reason the Nashville floods never gained much of a foothold in the national conversation: the "narrative" simply wasn't as strong.

Because it continually needs to fill the airwaves and the Internet with new content, 1,440 minutes a day, the media can only trade on a story's novelty for a few hours, tops. It is new angles, new characters, and new chapters that keep a story alive for longer. The problem for Nashville was that both the gulf oil spill and the Times Square terror attempt are like the Russian novels of this 24/7 media culture, with all the plot twists and larger themes (energy, environment, terrorism, etc.) required to fuel the blogs and cable shows for weeks on end.

What's more, both stories have political hooks -- which provide our increasingly politicized press MSNBC, FOX News, blogs) with grist for the kind of arguments (Did Obama respond too slowly? Should we Mirandize terrorists?) that further extend a story's lifespan. The Nashville narrative wasn't compelling enough to break the cycle, so the MSM just continued to blather on about BP and Shahzad.

If I sound like I'm condoning the media's inattention here, I'm not. My explanation is meant as a criticism. Given audience demands -- especially at a time when traditional media companies aren't doing so well -- it's impossible to avoid the stories with the most buzz and the strongest narratives. Nor should we. But that doesn't mean urgency shouldn't factor into the equation as well.

In this case, the most urgent aspects of the oil spill and the Times Square attack had already been covered to death; the culprit was already caught, the containment was already underway. And yet we still kept rehashing each of those stories -- and fighting about politics -- while thousands of homes and business were destroyed and dozens of people died. That matters.

Media silence means public ignorance, and public ignorance means fewer charitable donations, slower aid, and less political pressure. If that's not reason enough to cover the flood, I don't know what is.
Nashville's WSMV-TV station website has frequent updates on the flood situation. Country music stars Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Vince Gill and a host of others will take part in Nashville WSMV-TV Channel 4's "Working 4 You: Flood Relief with Vince Gill and Friends" telethon tonight from 7 to 10 p.m. CDT. All proceeds will benefit The Salvation Army, Red Cross, and Second Harvest Food Bank. Read about other local benefit efforts HERE
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