If tens of thousands of Americans were displaced by a once-in-a-millennium storm, you'd know about it, right?
Not necessarily. The flooding around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, but it's barely made the front page, overshadowed by the Olympics and Donald Trump's latest antics. Nor have the political leaders of either party seen fit to speak about the disaster. President Obama remains on vacation, and both major party nominees for president have largely ignored Louisiana's plight.
The silence has been so deafening that it itself has become the story, with an increasing number of think pieces, ranging from angry to ruminative, asking why we aren't talking more about the floods. The floods aren't news, but our indifference is.
But what does the indifference signify? Not that the disaster is actually being ignored by those who can make a difference, that's for sure. South Louisiana's residents have actually done a spectacular job of responding to the crisis. The "little platoons" have deployed themselves, just as Edmund Burke said they would. As well, national organizations like the Red Cross and federal agencies like FEMA have mobilized promptly, and have promised the resources necessary to respond and recover. The "system," so far, is working.
If the purpose of the news is to inform, then the news has done an adequate if not spectacular job. Broadcast media have reported that the floods are happening, and plenty of additional information is available online. NPR has covered the story with reasonable thoroughness. If you want to be informed, you will be. Meanwhile, if the purpose of the news is to mobilize a response, then again it's hard to fault the news, since the response has been swift and appropriate.
Another major function of the media is to expose the truth. But the Louisiana floods are not a scandal. This is not a story about foolish construction in a flood plain, nor a story about an incompetent government response to catastrophe. There's no cover-up, neither by the authorities nor by a community that doesn't want its own dirty laundry aired. There's no villain in this story — not even a natural one like a tsunami or a hurricane, bearing down on an unsuspecting community like divine wrath.
At the end of the day, the Louisiana floods are a human interest story. Which is undoubtedly why the national indifference hurts. It doesn't feel good to think that your suffering, your struggles, and your triumph over adversity are boring — especially when everyone seems to agree that a celebrity Twitter war requires 'round-the-clock coverage.
But if that's the case, then whose values are to be faulted here? The national media and political class for ignoring the floods? Or people whose own measure of the worth of their suffering and their heroism depends on whether it has gone viral?
As I write this, a video is going viral of a young boy in Aleppo rescued from rubble after an air strike. He's bloodied and covered in dust, but the poignancy of the video comes from his terrifying calm. Because he's in shock. On a visceral level, anyone with a child can feel the terror in that calm. And the hearts of the world are going out to that boy.
Perhaps that image will "make a difference." But I'm skeptical. The Syrian civil war has been covered extensively for years. It is a topic of constant political debate. It has materially shaped political events on at least three continents, and may yet lead to epochal change in European history. The problem is not one of ignorance, and it is not one of indifference either. The problem is precisely interest — fierce interest, in fatal conflict. So I suspect the main impact of this incredibly moving video will be to make people feel bad, and then feel good about telling other people about how bad they feel.
Thankfully, that's not what the Louisiana floods are about, and its victims should not regret that they don't have a refugee poster child of their own. If the loss and adversity, and the everyday acts of charity and professionalism in response, aren't interesting enough to the rest of the country, then that's the rest of the country's loss, not Louisiana's. If the floods and the national reaction thereto have convinced some folks that what makes the news isn't always what's important, then that's a salutary lesson learned. Ditto if they've discovered that when politicians show up to show they care, they're just trying to look caring, not because the show of concern actually helps.
The measure of meaning in an event simply does not lie in how it is covered, not even a little bit.
But I suspect most folks in Louisiana didn't need a flood to teach them that.