The flood the media's radar missed

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; 8:00 AM

As Nashville anchor Bob Sellers watched his city submerged and spent time helping colleagues whose homes were utterly ruined, he was struck by how the disaster remained a largely local story.

More than 30 people were killed in the Tennessee flooding, but there was no journalistic invasion to chronicle the misery. And Sellers, who has worked for CNBC and Fox News in New York, thinks he knows why.

"On that side of the Hudson, they really lose sight of the rest of the country," says Sellers, who grew up in Kentucky. "They view it as flyover country. . . . There's just a feeling among folks here, 'Look at what the national media are talking about, they're not giving any attention to this.' "

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.

Each, of course, raised a bewildering array of questions that could be endlessly debated by the pundits. Was the Obama administration too slow in reacting to the offshore explosion? Why didn't federal regulators crack down earlier on BP? How could a permit have been issued when the company had no real plan for stopping an oil spill?

And: Why was Faisal Shahzad allowed to board that plane even though he was on the no-fly list? Should the feds have read him his Miranda rights? Were we just lucky that he was a bumbling bombmaker?

By contrast, the Nashville story involved the all-too-familiar tale of a monster flood, even though it was a once-in-a-lifetime event for middle-class areas such as Bellevue. But try telling that to folks in Tennessee. Their view is that nobody died in Times Square.

"You get Tennessee pride and the feeling that if there was looting here, the national media would be all over it," says Mark Silverman, editor of the Tennessean. "I think that's unfair, but that's the way some people view it." He says he understands why the other two stories drew more attention, and that "if this had happened in another week, it would have been the flavor du jour."

For the most part, says 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.

On May 6, days after the floodwaters peaked, Anderson Cooper brought his CNN show to Nashville. "I didn't cover this as much as I should have earlier in the week," he told viewers. "And I know a lot of folks here, it's not that they want to see us, it's that they want the attention that these stories, that this can bring." On that day, though, the big national story was the Dow diving nearly 1,000 points before partially bouncing back.

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.

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