The Gatlinburg, Tennessee fire has caused great devastation – both literal and emotional – throughout the Smoky Mountain region. It’s also led to incredibly moving images of heroism and a community uniting.
In other words, the tragedy has all of the ingredients that usually make up a national news story. In the case of Gatlinburg, though, many who care about the region are upset that the national media is not providing the wall-to-wall coverage of the fire granted to such topics as Donald Trump’s tweets, Jill Stein’s recounts, or who walks in and out of Trump Tower on a daily basis.
Trump tweeting about flag burning seemed to get more national media attention than Tennessee literally burning, some felt.
People have also commented about what they believe is a lack of attention from President Barack Obama to the Gatlinburg tragedy; Obama speaks out about mass shootings but hasn’t yet tweeted on Tennessee.
Donald Trump did Tweet about the tragedy on November 29.
However, he was headed to Indiana, not the Smoky Mountains. Trump was vocal on Louisiana flooding, visiting the area with great fanfare and writing donation checks. The Tennessee governor thanked Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence for calling him to offer support, however, and the Twitter ire was directed at the president.
Obama’s Twitter page was silent. The White House Twitter site had mentioned the Ohio State stabbing but not Gatlinburg, at least as of December 1. On November 30, the president finally released a statement on the Gatlinburg fire, offering condolences for the victims’ families and federal assistance, including a FEMA grant.
People observed that McDonald’s had tweeted more about Gatlinburg than the president had.
To some degree, the media may take cues from the politicians. When prominent people highlight a tragedy or visit the area, you may see Anderson Cooper and flocks of national news reporters follow suit. However, people on Twitter commented extensively about what they see as the media downplaying the Gatlinburg tragedy, and they see it as part of a pattern that also emerged in the national media’s underestimating of Donald Trump’s ability to win the White House.
Many on Twitter see it as disdain for rural Americans or just a lack of understanding of them.
Wrote Jason Howard in The New York Times, “Little attention has been paid to this disaster by the national media. CNN and ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ offered only a few combined minutes of anemic coverage. By Tuesday afternoon, only CNN’s website had it as major news…”
People on Twitter expressed anger (it’s worth noting it was this sort of anger at the supposedly elite media that Trump rode to the White House.)
The media are not monolithic, of course, and many local reporters, both television and print, have done a valuable job in covering the tragedy. Newspapers like the Knoxville News Sentinel are out on the ground. Local TV stations like WTAE-TV out of Pittsburgh are too.
You can find many news stories on the fire in many national news outlets; the fact an above quote comes from The New York Times proves that point. It’s more the scope of the coverage and the intensity of the narrative that bothers people.
It’s the degree of coverage that people seem to think is missing. Dolly Parton seemed to be the highest-profile person taking an interest.
Here are some reasons people are giving for why the media aren’t paying more attention:
1. Beltway Bias
Some see a beltway bias in the elite national media that favors the coasts with coverage from anchors and reporters who themselves come from the coasts. If you’ve never gone on a family vacation to the Smoky Mountains, you may lack the ability to perceive the emotional connection many people have to the tragedy. You might not grasp the importance of the area to the region or why a man’s discovery of a Bible verse near the fire scene moved so many.
Some believe this beltway tilt in the national media – a lack of geographic diversity – is the same problem that led to so many pundits and pollsters getting the presidential election so completely wrong on our TV screens.
The American Spectator, a conservative magazine, noted, “…stories outside of New York and D.C. don’t exist. This story-blindness leads to Americans outside those urban centers to feel alienated. Over and over, the media reinforces the notion that they’re out of touch with the lives of people who are not like them.”
Others believe the media have a regional bias and are also ignoring extreme drought conditions in the American South. Wrote the Federalist, “Ravaged by months of drought, huge swaths of the southeast United States are on fire, but you wouldn’t know it judging by national media coverage. A total of six states in the southeast (Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi) are currently suffering from ‘exceptional drought.'”
“The conversation at Thanksgiving dinner tables in the South last week wasn’t about politics; it was about drought and burn bans and fire risk,” wrote the Federalist.
2. Class or Southern Bias
There’s been a troubling refrain on Twitter in which some people bring up the socio-economic history of the region, with some going so far as to deride the noble people of Gatlinburg as “white trash.”
Some people perceived a Southern bias or secular media disdain for the Bible Belt.
Howard wrote in The Times, “It’s hard not to feel that, were this a wildfire in Malibu, Calif., we’d be watching round-the-clock coverage of the multimillion-dollar houses being threatened and the natural beauty of the Pacific Palisades being ravaged. Unfortunately, this lack of attention is all too familiar to the residents of Appalachia, who have historically been ignored or misrepresented in the national consciousness. News coverage has focused on economic poverty rather than cultural riches, a handful of feuds rather than strong family ties.”
In addition to Dolly Parton, the actor Scott Baio and Miley Cyrus are among those who have commented on the tragedy.
3. Trump & Political Bias
Believe it or not, but there are people on Twitter who have actually trashed the region for supporting Donald Trump in the wake of the tragedy.
Donald Trump himself labeled the working class voters who shifted for him as the “Forgotten Man” in a tweet after the election.
People turned to social media to get news because they couldn’t find enough of it on TV. Some people felt that the media make political judgments about which spot news scenes to cover most (some have reported that journalists tend to vote Democratic).
People on social media were upset at the president. He did contact the governor of Tennessee on November 30, although that was two days after the fire broke out.
That was a day after Trump tweeted on the tragedy.
4. The Overall Number of Casualties
To be sure, the tragedy is horrific, and every life lost is worthy of national attention. However, the casualty count stands at seven as of December 1, and the media tend to gravitate to the scenes of mass death.
Almost 3,000 people died on September 11, 2001, more than 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina, and 49 people died in the Orlando Pulse shooting, as points of comparison.
The tragedy also lacks the dramatic angle of a terrorism link, like the Boston Marathon bombing. Wildfires of this magnitude are rare, but they are not an entirely uncommon occurrence. Hurricane Matthew killed 44 people. Still, the Smoky Mountain tragedy was a natural disaster akin to that hurricane but seemed to get less wall-to-wall coverage.
5. The Costs & Logistics of Coverage
It’s cheaper and quicker for national cable networks to fill their 24-hour news holes with shouting talking heads and pundit panels in New York than to fly crews to Tennessee.
The media may be paying a price, though, from not giving equal attention to the entire country. Some people on Twitter were very angry about what they see as a lack of media attention to the tragedy on a national scale.
Covering Trump’s tweets also takes far fewer resources than dispatching crews to cover a story on the ground.
See photos of those missing in the Gatlinburg tragedy: