Thirty people died in the Cumberland River flood that inundated Nashville and other places in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi. But, as we have complained on this blog, it barely made the news. This, despite our three 24-hour cable news networks that one would think have lots of air time to fill. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz explores why, and, in doing so, makes the late Neil Postman’s point that the news is less about what happened and more about spinning entertaining stories:
The reasons are more complicated — and troubling — than Music City’s distance from the big media centers. Downtown Nashville was unfortunate enough to be under water while the news business was grappling with two other dramatic stories: the attempted bombing in Times Square and the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill. . . .
For the most part, says [Paul] Sellers, who works for NBC affiliate WSMV and lamented the lack of national coverage in a Huffington Post piece, “the cable networks have become issue machines. They love to cover something that has a right wing and a left wing that can argue it out.”
The New York Times sent a reporter to Nashville, but the story never made the front page. The Washington Post relied solely on the Associated Press. The Los Angeles Times used a staffer who did not travel to Tennessee. ABC, CBS and NBC sent correspondents whose pieces aired for a day or two on the morning and evening newscasts. Such reports often mentioned that the Opryland Hotel was under nearly 10 feet of water but had little time to explore the scope and texture of the human suffering. . . .
Unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was no angry finger-pointing over the government’s response in Nashville; federal and local authorities were seen as quickly cooperating as the region struggled with power outages and water shortages. President Obama sent Cabinet members but chose not to visit himself, which would have brought the White House press corps to town.
“Nuances are lost when you do fly-in, fly-out reporting,” Silverman says of the coverage. In journalism, he says, “everyone wants to have a villain. But there are no villains yet, except for Mother Nature.” There was, however, intense hunger for information: Traffic at the Tennessean’s Web site, which averages 20,000 page views a month, soared to 44,000 page views in the first 12 days of May.
Newsweek’s Andrew Romano writes that the problem with the Nashville story was “the ‘narrative’ simply wasn’t as strong” as in the suspense-laden Times Square and BP dramas. “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.”