On August 26 I wrote The End Times in Texas: media portrayal versus reality about the contrast between the tone of at least some media stories regarding Hurricane Harvey and what Houston-based friends were saying in email or on Facebook. My post sought to avoid the selection bias of typical media reports by seeking on-the-ground accounts from non-journalists.
Within about 40 hours of that post it became apparent that the scale of damage was close to the worst-case scenarios that had been painted. None of my on-the-scene friends had been prepared for it. Now I’m wondering if the media’s generally hysterical tone is partly responsible for folks discounting the likelihood of the worst-case scenarios.
In the not-so-glorious-as-remembered days of my youth, newspapers didn’t have to work desperately to capture readers and advertisers. More or less every family in a city would subscribe to that city’s principal newspaper. There was a steady stream of subscription and advertising revenue even during “slow news” periods. An editor could run a quiet “human interest” story on the front page if there were nothing sufficiently dramatic happening to justify a big headline.
Today, however, newspapers have to compete for attention with other online diversions, streaming video, video games, etc. So even the most irrelevant information is characterized as having the potential to change readers’ lives, the smallest issues debated in Congress become life-or-death, and the most ineffectual action taken by a president is the next step toward tyranny.
As an example, here’s a front-page expose from the New York Times on the same day, August 26, as my Hurricane Harvey post: “Late Wages for Migrant Workers at a Trump Golf Course in Dubai”:
“Trump is not the owner or developer of Trump International Golf Club Dubai nor does it oversee construction or employ or supervise any of the companies or individuals who have been retained to work on the building of the project,” said a company spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, in an emailed statement.
The Pakistani driver who works at the Trump course arrived three years ago, seeking to support his wife and two boys. He took a job driving a pickup, earning over $800 a month, or more than twice his pay at home. He is supposed to be paid within the first five days of the month. Frequently, a week or more passes without the money arriving.
In other words, after reading about 15 screens of text one learns that the subcontractor of the subcontractor of the Trump partner does eventually pay workers in full. This merited “top of the home page” placement on the same day as stories about one of our largest cities being potentially flooded.
Readers: What do you think? When everything is presented as a crisis do we lose our ability to perceive the true potential crises?