The flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 obsessed the media and produced a storm of criticism for an insufficiently massive and rapid federal response that turned national opinion finally against George W. Bush, making him into a lame duck for the rest of his second term, and presaging democrat recovery of both Congress and the White House. The New Orleans flood was treated as terribly important.
Recently, the Cumberland River crested Monday at 51.9 feet, 12 feet above flood stage, spilling over its banks into the city of Nashville, Tennessee, flooding a historic downtown, producing billions of dollars in damages and killing at least 30 people. Meanwhile, national news coverage has focused instead on an oil spill in the Gulf which had not even yet reached shore, and a car bomb in Times Square that did not even explode.
Why the differences in perceived significance and coverage? Andrew Romano explains that it’s a herd thing. They all cover what everybody else covers and they have a seriously limited attention range.
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 headlinesâ€”the Times Square bombing attempt and the Gulf oil spillâ€”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 resultsâ€”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 that further extend a story’s lifespan (Did Obama respond too slowly? Should we Mirandize terrorists?). The Nashville narrative wasn’t compelling enough to break the cycle, so the MSM just continued to blather on about BP and Shahzad.