When a bomb cyclone hit the Great Plains last Wednesday, the national media responded, predictably, with a few weather reports. The Washington Post told of the cyclone’s heavy winds, the “blizzard conditions” it had engendered in Colorado, and how a combination of rain and melting snow in “the transition zone between the warm and cold sectors of the storm” could pose “a flooding threat in eastern Nebraska and Minnesota, southeast South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and northern Michigan.” Just one person, a National Weather Service meteorologist, was quoted in the story.
Only once a biblical two inches of rain had run off from the frozen earth and into the Missouri River and its tributaries, causing horrific flooding across much of Nebraska and Iowa, did outlets like CNN jump in, relaying information about the number of levees that had been destroyed and an image of a nuclear power plant surrounded by water.
As the deluge spread, some news organizations in New York and Washington took greater notice, but practically none had deployed reporters to the scene, so they were forced to rely on wire services, social media, and phone interviews with emergency management officials. On Saturday, journalist Ted Genoways, who lives outside Lincoln, beseeched national outlets to put boots on the ground. “Much of the Great Plains is underwater and has been for days,” he tweeted, “I’ve been looking for a single story in the @nytimes or @washingtonpost reported from west of Chicago. Nothing.”
He got his wish two days later, when a team of Times reporters filed a story from Verdigre, Nebraska, that, as Genoways gratefully noted, was full of “details you can’t get from NYC.” Just look at the story’s gripping lede, featuring “ice chunks the size of small cars” and calves being “swept into freezing floodwaters, washing up dead along the banks of swollen rivers.” The Post, for its part, simply assigned Genoways to cover the floods himself, which he did in a heart-wrenching report from the ravaged town of Fremont.
Vital as this recent reporting from the nation’s premier newspapers has been, its tardiness underscores how unprepared editors in New York and Washington are for stories outside their usual terrain. Had they been more closely monitoring the region, they might have noticed when the Omaha World-Herald reported, a mere week before the arrival of the cyclone, on a National Weather Service presentation describing an “increased risk for major flooding,” and interviewed a hydrologist who warned: “If you had a checklist for the things you don’t want to have for flooding to be worse, we’re checking all the boxes. The recipe is there.”
If CNN or the Post had teams of reporters based in the Great Plains, they might have had that World-Herald story in mind last Tuesday, when Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts issued a preemptive emergency declaration. They might have realized that the flooding Ricketts warned of was worse than what is typical for spring on the prairie, where rivers’ unpredictability is a constant concern. Just last year, southeastern Iowa saw four floods. When the last one struck in October, Davenport’s Public Works Director was hardly alarmed, calling it a “run of the mill flood.” But for the New York editor or producer who doesn’t watch Big Ten football and has never eaten Quad Cities pizza, the distinction between “run of the mill” and “devastating” can be hard to grasp.
This lack of investment may explain why CNN was so quick to tie a bow on the story. By Tuesday, the network’s coverage had transitioned into feel-good mode, with an item about private pilots offering free rides to stranded residents. The same day, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds held a press conference cautioning that the threat of severe flooding to her state could continue throughout the spring. That didn’t stop CNN from moving on—by Thursday, there was hardly any mention of the flooding on its website aside from a summary article that hadn’t been updated in days.
The Times, at least, deserves credit for not sending its reporters home at the first sign of the floodwater’s relent. Yesterday, they ran a lengthy article featuring an Army Corps of Engineers official who operates six dams on the upper Missouri, and who was saddled with an unenviable decision: “Should he try to hold back the surging Missouri River but risk destroying a major dam, potentially releasing a 45-foot wall of water? Or should he relieve the pressure by opening the spillway, purposefully adding to the flooding of towns, homes and farmland for hundreds of miles[?]” He decided to unleash the water to save the dam, and in doing so inundated a local farm. The Times interviewed that farmer, David Lueth, who described abandoning his home as “like leaving your child at the I.C.U.” The story is a profound reminder of how intricately managed the rivers of the American interior have become in the past century, and how acts of God, on the Prairie, are often also acts of man.
Still, the historical detail that the Times felt the need to include shows how little it assumes its readers know about the region. The context offered dates back to the Dust Bowl—how can one write about the Great Plains without invoking The Grapes of Wrath?—and detours briefly to White Swan, the Yankton Sioux settlement that was submerged by Army Corps engineers who refused to relocate the Fort Randall Dam. This information may be helpful for those unfamiliar with the cultural and environmental dynamics at play, but it’s old hat to anyone who has spent significant time in this particular corner of flyover country.
Coastal ambivalence to the Prairie is nothing new. The likes of Des Moines and Sioux City are hardly large enough to merit a bureau in the era of cost-cutting, and the staid agricultural economies that predominate around the Missouri River only generate headlines when they’re caught up in some macro narrative, such as the depression in soybean prices caused by Trump’s trade war with China. (Much of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the flooding focused on the estimated $840 million in damages the already reeling ag industry has suffered.) In Nebraska, an old joke has it that the two largest cities are Omaha and the Huskers’ Memorial Stadium on Saturdays. That New York or L.A. isn’t paying much attention to the state and its neighbors may be aggravating to its mostly rural residents, but given the harsh calculus editors perform daily to determine their coverage, surely the fact that Nebraska’s population is smaller than that of metropolitan San Antonio comes into play.
This gets at a distinction which often gets lost in talk about the national media. A mandate to cover the whole country does not necessarily translate into equal coverage of each and every region. The inherent promise of the Times, CNN, or Newsweek is that they will fill you in on the most important things happening in the United States, but they will do so assuming you are far from the action; if you’re a local, the thinking goes, you’d be better served by your town’s papers and broadcast stations, which, theoretically, should provide much more timely and in-depth reporting.
That all sounds great. But when someone like Genoways pleads for the Post or the Times to take notice, it’s not simply because of their prose. It’s because of their influence: if the Times is covering something, every editor and producer suddenly needs to make a decision on whether to follow suit. As long as flooding in the Great Plains remains a local story, pleas for help won’t go far. Once a story goes national, more resources for recovery come into play; that it took a week for the President to offer federal aid to Nebraska surely has something to do with the national media’s belated coverage. This dynamic is likely to continue. Yesterday, NOAA issued a new report stating, as the Times put it in a headline, “25 States Are at Risk of Serious Flooding This Spring.” Flooding is not just a local problem, and even if it were, we now live in an age where local media has become so diminished that national news sources are often the default product consumers look to in times of crisis. Omaha and Des Moines are lucky enough to still have the World-Herald and the Register, but what happens when there’s a disaster in Pittsburgh, which lost its daily print newspaper last August, or in Birmingham, Alabama, which hasn’t had one since 2012?
Small cities are watching their journalistic institutions decay while the Times, Post, and Journal gain subscribers. As the crossfade between local and national media grows more extreme, communities across the country, when faced with disaster, increasingly look to New York and Washington for information. Under these circumstances, the view-from-five-thousand-feet approach to reporting will have to change. While the Times and its fellows may have been historically justified in paying less attention to less populated corners of the nation, leaving that muckraking to the locals, the excuses for not having someone on staff in every state feel thinner and thinner by the year. When the time comes to spend all those new subscription dollars, a national paper could do worse than opening up a bureau in Omaha.