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Media Attention To The South’s Wildfires Will Only Make Things Worse


Last week, Sean Davis penned a popular post saying “The South Is on Fire and National Media Couldn’t Care Less.” He is correct. The South has been burning since this summer, with little media attention. In fact, the drought in the South now covers more miles than the much-publicized drought in California.

I’m familiar with these fires. Two burned about 20 miles from my parents’ home in Chattanooga, Tennessee and destroyed more than 1,000 acres. Because I live in the DC area, Facebook and online news from Chattanooga are lifelines.

Davis thinks the lack of media focus is bad, but I disagree. Since August, two natural disasters and a tragedy occurred in places where I have roots. All three events had various levels of media attention with good and bad results. Despite our society’s need for media validation in response to a crisis, I don’t believe constant, wall-to-wall media coverage is beneficial.

When the Media Ignored Floods in Baton Rouge

In August, a deluge of rain caused massive flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A three-day storm dropped nearly 32 inches of rain, three times more than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The sudden flooding drove 4.5 feet of water into my grandmother’s house. In less than an hour, everything was destroyed.

If media coverage on the fires was scant, media coverage on the Louisiana floods was nonexistent. My family relied on Facebook and local media outlets for information. The flood was devastating. Around 110,000 homes were damaged across nine parishes, causing an estimated $20 billion in destruction, but no one covered it. This doesn’t mean the South received no help, however. Far from it, in fact.

After friends stepped forward to help my grandmother rebuild, my family decided to volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse. For a week, we slept at a church and spent our days gutting out wet and moldy sheetrock and insulation before spraying houses with mold preventative.

The stories from flood victims were heartbreaking, but they were thankful to be alive. Both black and white residents we worked with were encouraged that the flood helped heal a community ripped apart by racial tensions after a police shooting.

People were also angry that the TV crews that had descended onto New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were missing. Family after family voiced frustration that they weren’t given the opportunity to share their stories with the rest of the country. Residents constantly mentioned that they were overlooked because the flood affected rural areas outside of Baton Rouge, while Katrina devastated an urban center.

There was one exception: Sean Hannity broadcasted a show from Baton Rouge featuring Samaritan’s Purse, and Donald Trump visited. When my mother and I arrived a week later, both locals and volunteers were still praising the visit. Many directly cited the “Hannity” show for telling them about the flood and the need for volunteers.

The anger and frustration over a lack of national media did yield positive results. Due to the unexpected need to rescue so many people over a widespread area, the Cajun Navy formed. This network of brave volunteers, armed with boats and smartphones, rescued around 10,000 people when First Responders were overwhelmed. Led by Rob Gaudet, they continue to work in the community and plan to assist in future emergencies as a citizen-led movement. So far, they’ve also been successful in fighting off state attempts to regulate them. In Louisiana, despite the lack of media attention, the national networks of local communities activated to help their loved ones in time of need.

Media Frenzy Exploited the Bus Accident in Chattanooga

The Monday before Thanksgiving, my hometown tragically drew the attention of the national media when a school bus driver crashed and killed six children. This nightmare situation would draw media attention anywhere in the country, but the difference in coverage from local and national media was startling.

CBS reported that a parent of one of the fatalities claimed the bus driver had asked the kids before the crash, “Are you all ready to die?” Once broadcast, this dramatic quote spread around the world and was echoed in outlets like Fox News, New York Post, New York Daily News, AOL, Yahoo, UK Independent, and Daily Mail. Even right-of-center sites such as Daily Caller and Pajamas Media picked up the salacious quote. The Independent Journal Review added the clickbait headline, “The 5 Chilling Last Words Bus Driver Said to Kids Before Crashing Bus Will Haunt Parents Rest of Their Lives.”

The quote wasn’t substantiated by any other parent or surviving child, so local media refused to touch it. The out-of-control frenzy forced the Chattanooga Police Department to address these claims during a press conference. CPD Sgt. Austin Garrett explained: “The media is reporting claims that the driver asked the children on the bus if they were prepared to die. I want to be very clear on this. No witness we have spoken with has this information or provided it to our investigators.”

His remarks were backed up by Tiffanie Robinson, a friend who serves on the Hamilton County School Board. On Twitter, she responded: “As a board member, that has not been reported to me. I am dismissing it as a rumor until told otherwise.”

The Slow Media Response to Fires in the South

The historic drought in the South should be old news. Wildfires started burning this summer. Chattanooga is on track to have the driest year on record. The media finally noticed the wildfires this week after one in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park exploded into the nearby town of Gatlinburg. As I write this, seven deaths have been confirmed, 700 structures destroyed, and 14,000 people evacuated.

Why the sudden attention? The Smokies attract more than 11 million visitors each year and boast the most popular national park in the United States. The towns immediately surrounding it in Tennessee generated $1.9 billion in revenue in 2014 from tourism, which is the main driver of their economy.

Gatlinburg also provided the media with the dramatic sharable images and video that had been lacking from other fires. The “Fire Everywhere” video at the Park Vista Hotel and the terrifying video of a Gatlinburg resident escaping in his car went viral. President-elect Trump drew more interest when he tweeted his support for Gatlinburg.

Is the Lack of Media Attention Bad?

In his Federalist post, Davis echoes what I heard in Baton Rouge that the media only focuses on stories that happen near them or fit into frames they wish to promote:

But because it’s not happening in New York or D.C. or Los Angeles, it doesn’t really count as news. When a few snowflakes begin to fall in Washington, it’s a national emergency. When Los Angeles has a lot of traffic on Thanksgiving, it requires an international APB. But when tens of thousands of acres are burning in the South following months of drought, it barely warrants a shrug.

Is it a surprise that the same media that got the presidential election wrong wouldn’t be self-aware enough to cover stories outside of the bi-coastal blue zones? The increasing insularity of national media drives not only their political coverage, but also the breaking news they report, emerging trends, and what they think is important.

Stop asking, “Why aren’t they covering this?” Instead, conservatives should ask, “Do we need them?”

Conservatives Should Focus on Local Efforts and Media

If the media focused on the fires in the South, two things would happen: a media circus would descend upon Gatlinburg with an inevitable Shepard Smith meltdown, and it would be politicized to fit national politics. The likely narrative would shift to discussions on how the stupid, uneducated, redneck Tennesseans voted for Trump, which will only hasten their demise from climate change.

If conservatives support solving issues at the local or state level, the interference of the national media only makes it harder.

We saw pundits push politics over news when gun control advocates jumped on the Ohio State University attack even though the student used a knife and his car, and the media is already blaming climate change before the fatality count is finalized in Gatlinburg.

If conservatives support solving issues at the local or state level, the interference of the national media only makes it harder. As soon as an issue gets picked up, the drumbeat starts for Congress to do something…now! “Doing something usually” means knee-jerk legislation, wasteful spending, and onerous regulations.

The lack of national news coverage forces people to solve issues at local and state levels. They can’t be tossed up to the federal government to address. This forces local and state governments to work within the community to solve problems without huge, one-size-fits-all federal programs.

While local media can be biased, it is easier to hold them accountable. They live, work, and have families in the areas they cover. Unlike the national media, they have to live with the repercussions of what they report.

Within the framework of the current national media, conservatives can’t win. This election cycle demonstrated the wide disconnect that the media feels toward the rest of the country, so why worry if the national media isn’t covering something? Baton Rouge is slowly recovering from the floods, and the South was fighting fires long before the media noticed they were burning. If media is not interested in covering all of America, we might be better off without them.