When the rain started on Saturday, May 1, I was following discussions about the weather on Twitter, where users were tagging their relevant tweets as #theOtherSituation2010, a play on how an earlier, city-paralyzing snowstorm had been referred to as #theSituation (that, itself, a reference to the nickname of a personality and his washboard abs on the MTV show Jersey Shore). People were keeping an eye on the weather, but they were making light of it.
By Sunday, it was obvious that the time for joking had passed, that things were very wrong and that a lot of people needed a lot of information quickly. Folks were worried that, without a more specific tag, something like #nashvilleflood, even if the topic trended (and thus appeared on the screen of every Twitter user on web interface), people wouldn’t know what it referred to, wouldn’t know to click on it, and wouldn’t be able to share in the information they might need.
In other words, almost as soon as the direness of the situation became apparent, people seemed to sense that we needed to market our tragedy in a way that would catch people’s attention.
I’m not knocking this impulse. It was obviously the right one. Not just because it helped organize the immediate community response, but because it prodded the national response.
On the Sunday our city was drowning, like most folks, I was switching back and forth between the local news and Internet chatter, and looking out my front door with concern. After I saw on television a building floating down Interstate 24 and heard reports of people getting swept to their deaths, I turned the channel to see what the 24-hour news channel coverage of the floods looked like.
I didn’t expect it to be extensive, but I thought there would be something.
I was wrong.
The national media later claimed they were busy with the attempted Times Square car-bombing and the oil spill in the Gulf, but on Sunday, we could see with our own eyes that they weren’t even spending a lot of time on those stories. Instead, it was prisons, Ann Coulter, or interviews with interns. Their excuses ring a little hollow. Something else was going on.
Andrew Romano at Newsweek admits as much. He wrote that the national media was slow bothering to cover us because the story seemed boring, that one of the reasons “the Nashville floods never gained much of a foothold in the national conversation: The ‘narrative’ simply wasn’t as strong.”
Yes, you may have lost your home. Your neighbor may have died. Your place of work may have been destroyed. But the national news, once it even figured out what was going on in Middle and West Tennessee, just didn’t think our suffering was going to hook viewers.
We finally got national media attention not because they picked up on the flooding but because they picked up on the anger and outrage folks were expressing at being ignored. The Internet chatter and phone calls from angry celebrities finally became something they had to pay attention to.
Predictably, that turned the story into “How did the national media miss this,” but at least they had to mention what happened to us in order to get to the navel-gazing. At least that meant people would know.
This is ghoulish business: requiring suffering people to “pitch” their tragedies so you can decide if they meet your business needs, if they will attract a long-term audience. But the stakes are so high — if communities don’t have national media attention, they don’t get donations of time and money, they don’t get widespread pressure on insurance companies and the government to play fair. This kind of marketing is crucial.
But what about the communities that don’t have hundreds of Internet-savvy people doing the grunt work? What about communities that don’t have the Internet (either temporarily or because it’s just not reached them yet)? What about places without a Kenny Chesney to call Anderson Cooper? What about towns that are just wiped away?
If there’s no one to pitch their story, does it just not get told? Is the line between news and entertainment so blurry now that national coverage comes only to the events that offer the best narrative?
I’m concerned about this from the viewpoint of a Nashville resident who wants national attention and support. But, frankly, I’m more concerned from the perspective of a person who still counts on the news to tell me what’s going on in the world. If the national media could miss a story this big, what other things we need to know about are they missing?
Phillips is a Nashville writer and blogger. Visit her at www.tinycatpants.com