National TV 'News' Scores an Epic Fail for an Epic Flood in Louisiana

How Do You Not Cover Something So Compelling?

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Half a state under water couldn't compete with Donald Trump.
Half a state under water couldn't compete with Donald Trump. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

An open letter to the algorithm in charge of TV news

Dear NewsBot,

I've got a bone to pick with you, whatever gender you may be. I'm angry. And I'm angry about the fact that I'm even angry, that I've become one of those clowns writing an "open letter." The truth is I typically don't care about TV news or, as I like to refer to it, TV "news."

I gave up on TV news a long time ago. Broadcast, cable -- it doesn't matter. The only benefit broadcast has over cable in this regard is there's so much less of it -- and by it, I mean the brain-cell-killing noise pollution that is the bulk of what you program. The only time I tune in is when something big is happening, a massive live pop-culture or political event. Or a natural disaster. Sure, in those cases, you can be guilty of overkill, especially when you're trying to fill the time in between developments with the yammering of your anchors and so-called experts. But it's easy enough to mute.

What I, and others, tune in for during such times is to see something happening, to get that visceral feeling of watching something unfold.

And something was unfolding in Louisiana. It started last week and continued into this week. A natural disaster of historic proportions. A low-pressure system parked itself over the southern part of my home state and the rains began and didn't stop for days. And you, NewsBot, were programming Donald Trump or whether or not Adele was going to be the entertainment at next year's Super Bowl.

Maybe, according to your calculations, there weren't enough dead. Maybe the towns involved were too small. Sure, Baton Rouge is the state capital and Lafayette is considered the Cajun capital, but they're no New Orleans, which you often seem to think is the only city in the state.

But none of that can be true. After all, you'd managed to swarm Baton Rouge after recent police shootings there. That was an important story and I'm glad you covered it.

But also important: Thirty parishes were declared disaster areas (last I checked), thousands of people were driven from their homes and 11 people (so far) are dead. Even after the Red Cross pegged this as the costliest natural disaster in the states since Hurricane Sandy, you still had Trump on the brain.

Look. I get it. Actual news gathering is hard. Which is why TV news so often waits for newspapers to do it, then just copies off of them.

And the truth is, with this flood, there was no homework to steal. The national newspapers dropped the ball. USA Today did OK, I guess, since Gannett owns newspapers in Louisiana (even if they're woefully understaffed).

Much to my surprise, The New York Times, a newspaper that can't seem to get enough of Louisiana when it comes to food, music and quirk, was nowhere to be found. That was a real slap in the face. Despite its wrongheaded insistence on spelling "crawfish" as "crayfish" and its trollish style section, it's my favorite newspaper. And it was MIA. This angered me so much that I turned into one of those people shouting on Twitter. And let me tell you, as a human editor, there's nothing I hate more than people shouting at me about what to cover.

To the Times' credit, it admitted its mistake with a column from Public Editor Liz Spayd titled "On Gulf Coast Flooding, the Times Is Late to the Scene." Since then, it's been all over it.

I became so desperate that I read something from Salon for the first time since 2000. Sean Illing, a political writer for the publication, argued that you didn't cover the flood because it was lacking the necessary elements of "disaster porn," which is something we all know you're super hot for. It didn't fit the narrative, he wrote. (By the middle of last week, he'd be joined by a slew of other writers making similar points.)

I slightly disagree with Mr. Illing. This was a disaster. And there were many elements that fit the voyeuristic needs of a visual medium. Entire towns underwater. People on their rooftops. Escaped horses with the owners' phone numbers painted on them. Families stranded on islands of interstate. Caskets floating free from the earth. The Cajun Navy -- hundreds of South Louisianans rushing to the scene with their boats and starting with rescue efforts before the state and federal governments got around to it.

Sounds like the sort of thing you'd typically go nuts for. Sounds like pretty good TV to me.

How do I know about all of these things? A mix of local media and social media.

Let me stop to praise the local TV guys. They worked this story hard, despite having their own families and homes to worry about. And the video of a rescue of a woman and her dog trapped in her car aired by WAFB out of Baton Rouge should win an Emmy and an Oscar and whatever else we give trophies for these days.

WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

That was a compelling and harrowing narrative. Just the sort of thing that national news outlets would pick up and run with until we were desensitized. But even there, you guys were slow to pick it up.

I saw that clip on Facebook. In fact, I saw everything on Facebook.

Twitter fancies itself a news medium, but it's become almost as bad as you.

It's not a fair comparison, really, because Facebook is for family and friends and I still have a few hundred of those in Louisiana. So while Twitter, and you, obsessed over Trump or the Olympics or Justin Bieber's Instagram, my Facebook feed was full of posts from victims, families, first responders and local media. Many of those posts contained video. Shaky video. Grainy video. Good video. Excellent video. Aerial video from drones. (You realize you don't have to shell out for helicopters these days, right?)

And even live video.

You didn't think this footage could fuel hours and hours of compelling TV? The Weather Channel did. Good for them.

I'll say something else, Newsbot. The people of Louisiana noticed you weren't covering.

And that matters, too. Putting aside ratings and viewers -- and for the broadcast networks, your federally mandated duty in exchange for airwaves -- you're actually feeding into the divide you make your anchors pretend to care about.

Some people are worth covering. Others aren't.

In fact, your lack of hyperventilating coverage has become a partisan issue.

This is one of the reasons you're seen not as a harmless bit of infotainment, but as part of some almost-sinister tool of an elite establishment.

Perhaps if you spent less time giving Trump breathless coverage and more time covering actual people, those people wouldn't be so predisposed to side with him.

(A small aside: You may have noticed that in a rare bit of smart campaigning, Trump beat Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the scene. You covered that a little bit. But I am a little curious as to what your algorithm says about natural disaster + president + playing golf + Martha's Vineyard these days, and why that's changed since Hurricane Katrina. Just asking for a few thousand friends and family.)

I don't know. Maybe you could put a living, breathing person with half a brain and a heart back in charge of things.

Until then, there are some wildfires in California you should probably look into. It's a little more important than Ryan Lochte's crime caper.

~ ~ ~
Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age and, if it wasn't clear from the above, was born and raised in south Louisiana, which serves as the setting for two of his novels Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears and The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival.

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