Misery loves company – OR – Safety in numbers

If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you’d likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.

But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time — if you are one among a big number — then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.

Is that fair? No, logically, it isn’t. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics. This is in a sense an extreme example of the inequality of power law Clay Shirky writes about: The people at the top of any number curve get the attention.

If life, government, and media were fair — if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity — then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region’s infrastructure — its roads, schools, utilities, services — were also disrupted or destroyed.

So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss — and who will argue with that? — then, it has been asked, why don’t the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

But this isn’t about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media’s, first and foremost. Part of the reason behind that is obvious: In a world of scarce paper and airtime, only the big news gets big attention and big numbers mean big stories. Part of this is our fault: We watch the big story because of the big numbers. So big numbers make business sense: Big begets big.

Then the politicians exploit the numbers, too, of course. Especially after messing up the rescue and relief on the Gulf Coast, Bush and Congress ran to throw big money at the big numbers of victims: $200 billion is the latest figure we’ve heard. But we haven’t yet heard a substantial debate about how best to use such money: Is it to rebuild New Orleans? Or reimagine New Orleans? To support the building of housing there, as has been proposed? To support the creation of jobs there? To support mortgages and jobs and schools elsewhere in the country, where these people are going?

Whenever numbers grow big, you can count on a big backlash. The other day, I took Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman to task for scolding media because they reported predictions of death tolls that — thank God — apparently turned out to be too dire. And then an AP reporter called following a similar angle. I told him that it is a nonissue. What were reporters to do: Not report what officials said? Question their numbers with no basis in fact to do so? Follow what the officials said with some blanket caveat — “but they could be wrong” — as if we’re all an idiot and didn’t know that already? And what if — God forbid — the numbers turned out to be even worse than predicted? Then how would the reporters look? If the number were smaller or greater, is the story and the tragedy and the need any different? Or is it just the numerical perception, the headline value and political value that changes? And as a practical matter, if the government would not jump fast enough in a disaster where 10,000 were believed to have died, then you could argue that the local officials should have predicted 100,000 to get faster action. Because everybody responds to a bigger number.

This is all a product of mass think from mass media and plaint-by-numbers politics. But to quote Raymond Williams as quoted often by Jay Rosen: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

We see — and use — the victims and even the dead as masses. But, of course, they are a mass of individual stories and today, on the internet, each of those individuals can tell his story. We are coming into the age of the empowered individual: as consumers, as publishers, as businesspeople, as citizens. We have to learn that when we hypervalue the mass, we undervalue each of us. Whether part of a tragedy of huge numbers or a tragedy of one, each of us is the same, just one person with the our own pain and the our own needs. That is the ethic of the individual over the ethic of the mass.

: LATER: David Carr wrote in The Times today about other kinds of exaggeration that came into Katrina aftermath coverage — just as happens with other too-big stories: the reports of rapes and murders in the Convention Center, for example, which came from major media and which I linked to. Fears and stories get overblown. That may not excuse the journalists who reported without verification. But even here, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the neglect, and that is the real story.

It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city’s SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.

If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not, if one person died becuase of this or five or 10, the story of neglect is still the same.

  • Thanks for saying it… though for New Orleans it’s maybe too little, too late. I know a lot about New Orleans and it’s people top to bottom, and I knew those reports were not right. I railed at the television screen while I was evacuated. I bristled at NPR for all the early “blame the victim” stories. So blogs are an antidote to the story. I had to turn off the coverage because it made me so angry I couldn’t focus on what I was witnessing.

    As for the clean up and recovery which is well started in my little bit of the disaster, (and just barely beginning for many many others) I’m tempted to blog about the financial end of it. I’ve not had time to contact my home owner’s insurance. So far my “recovery” has consisted of $149 in food stamps, which wasn’t activated when I went to restock my refridgerator, and $215 which was a private donation with a funny story which I will blog soon.

    Numbers may drive stories. But as we are in the hard work of the recovery mode, the thousands and thousands of individual stories are much more important to me. I love listening to people that I run into. I notice people talk to each other in lines and reach out instinctively in support and compassion. Pictures tell only a part of the story. I took some photos yesterday, but haven’t yet found how to frame them as a tiny fragment in miles and miles of streets full of soaked furniture and sheetrock under blue roofs. (FEMA contractors will put a blue tarp on your roof to protect against further damage until you get a sound roof up.)

    I find the recovery, and healing to be the big story. But the news cycles move on. People needed information here. What they got was rumors and flashy falsehoods. The press should hang their heads collectively in shame. But as you suggest, blogs at least counterbalance.

  • I’ve often thought the same thing about the “value” of a person’s tragic death. If someone dies in a car accident, is the loss that the family and friends feel less than for someone who died in a huge air disaster, or on 9/11, etc.? Do other people react with more or less sympathy, depending on the amount of coverage? Media attention can sometimes make people who have lost loved ones in quiet tragedy feel cheated – or is it the other way around?

  • Ravo

    “If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not,”

    Jeff, If it is known WHY the soldiers would/could not act, then such a statement is inflammatory and incomplete.

    WHY couldn’t the soldiers get there. Immediately, the feds get blamed,
    although they had the soldiers geographically positioned, ready willing and able, according to what I read in the blogosphere. I have not read that refuted.

    They followed the storm, by boat…the US Baton etc. was right behind Katrina all the way.

    When you say the soldiers could not get there, can you also say why?

    From the blogosphere, I learned:

    That our constitution prevents their acting unless the gov. gives her permission?

    And, I read she did not.

    If that is true,

    it makes a major difference in the impact of that statement on the minds of readers. And it makes a major difference in whether it is journalism of integrity, or one of agenda – just Bush-bashing fodder.

    Were the soldiers NOT THERE?
    Were the soldiers THERE but didn’t act?
    If they didn’t act, WHY – what or WHO kept them from acting?

    What is the truth here? Simply saying the soldiers could not get to the convention center if knowing why and not saying why….is grossly inflammatory and misleading.

  • jj

    DLoye has good comments. Good journalism was lacking in the coverage of Katrina. The MSM is not made up of journalists anymore. Its goal is entertainment and audience rating. They have little interest in whether the facts are correct only if the facts support some emotional–and thus–entertaining television or printed stories. Responsible journalism would not pander to the hysteria of city officals in New Orleans or as far as that goes the hysteria of the victims unless leavened with a sober reasoned view of the overall picture.

  • Duneview

    JJ –
    There’s no better example of “news as entertainment” than Yahoo turning to Hollywood, who then hires a reporter right out of central casting to be their war guy.

    I know
    you thought that was cool
    , but I can’t help but think we are are all devalued by this.

    Scud Stud II?

  • Shawn

    Yeah, just like the federal government bashing was overblown…

  • Ravo,

    The “Bush couldn’t act because Governor Blanco wouldn’t let him” meme has been debunked for quite some time now. The state of emergency declaration which authorized Federal intervention was in fact made two days before Katrina hit, according to Snopes.com. The truth is that the Feds screwed up badly — even Bush seems to understand this, so it’s quite remarkable that there are still those of you in denial about it.

  • Jeff,

    A pretty coherent post except for when you defend the ridiculous body count estimates. That point should be on the other side of your argument that indicts the media.

    The media’s misreporting has been ridiculous.

    I watch CNBC for 9 hours a day for the last 10 years. The hurricane coverage has been so bad that I have had to mute the TV too many times to count.

    Just Thursday, Ted David, a CNBC anchor made the remark that several thousand had to die in New Orleans…..

    “Several thousand”? Do these people have any connection to reality?

  • This goes back to my early rants against “blaming” rather than reporting. The facts weren’t known (other than the “facts” we could see on TV, which have turned out to be rather interpretive and narrow “facts”), yet it was open season on blaming anyone and everyone for not doing something. When we do a timeline on the “blame game” we’ll see that part of the blame being slung around was due to all of the previous predictions written about what would happen if the Katrina scenario ever occured. They knew this would happen, yet no one was prepared, said the blamers.

    Yet as I read those scenarios, the predictions of deaths were in the 50,000 range. If it turns out that only hundreds rather than thousands died in those areas these scenarios predicted, then history should be kind to the mayor, governor and feds, for saving 49,000+ lives.

    Therefore, according to your rules of large numbers, 49,000+ lives were saved, making this one of the most impressive dispalys ever of life-saving by local, state and federal government officials and agencies.

  • Ravo

    JE..couldn’t get the link to work.

    We know Blanco requested aid …the aid you reference is disaster relief in the form of money….she was good and quick in requesting that.

    The help that was needed immediately was that of the soldiers.

    Marital law.

    There agreements that must be in place before we put National Guard military police law enforcement officers in that role out of their home state.

    …what I’ve read over these past weeks indicates her delay there left the soldiers idle and it was the soldier which were needed to allow the also present FEMA workers to do their jobs.

  • Andy Freeman

    Yup, Bush is to blame because he didn’t run roughshod over incompetent Dems who couldn’t be bothered to move buses to higher ground, let alone to use them to evacuate folks. Bush didn’t even use buses from the surrounding area. Bush also didn’t stop local officials from blocking evacuation routes. He also didn’t track down NOPD deserters. He didn’t root out decades of graft that spent the money that might have kept NO from flooding.

    However, he did install a puppet in a neighboring state that had even more storm damage, but somehow managed to not come out looking like a monument to govt incompetence.

  • Rex:
    Except for the family of number 49,001, who didn’t make it and died because bureaucrats were fighting over paperwork and didn’t get water to that victim. It’s not about numbers. It’s about lives. And a life doesn’t become more important because it’s part of a big or small number.

  • Big Casino

    No one should be “blamed” for Katrina. It is without precedent. But we can learn.

    Several years ago I bought flood insurance to protect my financial position and a 12 guage to protect me.

    We should all try to be prepared for whatever comes down the pike.

  • penny

    The “Bush couldn’t act because Governor Blanco wouldn’t let him” meme has been debunked for quite some time now.

    You’re right on that. It was debunked in Bush’s favor. As this WaPo article dated 9/3 points out Blanco blew it. She even admits as much in this article.

    It looks like there is a grassroots effort starting to have her impeached.

  • A golf buddy of mine just lost his wife in a car accident on a rain slicked road.

    A co-worker of mine lost his wife and son in a car accident while she was picking him up from lacrosse practice.

    One could argue that those deaths are more “tragic” than even dying in Iraq.

    115 Americans die each day in car accidents.

    For the mathematically challenged that is 42,000 per year.

    But this tragedy is very hard to blame on Bush.

  • David

    >But this tragedy is very hard to blame on Bush.

    He’s had 4 long years to prepare the government for any kind of attack that might be coming from BinLaden and his pals. We’ve been told to expect mushroom clouds in major U.S. cities. We’ve been told to expect biological attacks. We’ve been told to have our own emergency plans ready in case of an attack…duct tape our windows if I remember correctly…and shrub has been given billions of dollars to prepare the feds for any catastrophe that might be coming….and this is the best we get when an emergency occurs? Questions need to be asked about where all that money went…questions need to be asked why an incompetent person like Brown was put in charge…questions need to be asked why the prez was strumming his guitar while people were drowning.

  • penny

    He’s had 4 long years to prepare the government for any kind of attack that might be coming from BinLaden and his pals.


    Bush was only in office 9 months before 9/11. Prior to that he was governor of Texas and hardly responsible for national security. So 3 years plus of your timeframe was Clinton’s watch.

  • Shalom Ravo,

    Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, 18 USC 1385, is part of Federal law but not in the Constitution. It applies only to Army (and later Air Force) personnel serving as law enforcement officers. It does not in any way hinder or prohibit U.S. troops from providing all other forms of aid and assistance to U.S. citizens as directed by the proper Federal authorities.



  • Shalom Penny,

    The four years refers to the time since 11 September 2001 when our nation realized that we needed to be ready for massive destruction. Four years and billions of dollars later we now have to ask, was any of that time and money spent wisely?



  • Ravo

    The feds had supplies and troops PREPOSITIONED in a timely manner.

    The President did not put strumming a guitar BEFORE his duties.

    It takes an A-hole liberal to make something out of the President keeping an appointment. Do you think those events are really for the Pres. to get HIS jollies? More like a gracious chore.

    IN ADDITION to fulfilling his disaster obligation…..of

    getting the troops, supplies, and money to LA….only to have it held up by Blanco.

    Bush would have had to predetermine that Nagin and Blanco were inept fools BEFORE the storm, to do any better. He did not predetermine that about the other states, nor did anyone realize that about NO and LA until we all saw differently.

    Had he, there would have been an even worse “racist” outcry from liberal opportunists.

  • penny

    Jeff, the point of Posse Comitatus is that Federal troops can not enter a state without the governor’s permission. Blanco postponed the National Guard offer to her detriment and that of her constituents.

    Four years and billions of dollars later we now have to ask, was any of that time and money spent wisely?

    Is anyone ever totally prepared for catastrophe? Pose that question to anyone regarding their personal life? Cancer? Stroke? Car accident? Unemployment? Theft?

    It’s fascinating that so many people hold the government responsible for their protection and are inadequately prepared themselves.

    The bottomline is that there are limits to how far government can protect and assist.

  • penny

    Bush would have had to predetermine that Nagin and Blanco were inept fools BEFORE the storm……….

    And after.

    Mayor Nagin’s call to return to New Orlens flies against all good judgement with 911 numbers not working and hurricane Rita entering the Gulf.

  • EverKarl

    I’m not going to wade deeply into this again other than to say that: (a) Jeff is right in the sense that all lives are valuable; and (b) I think Jeff is still missing the point that one can agree with (a), yet still be concerned that the media’s coverage was so unquestioning of some of the rumors and estimates that were thrown around early on.

  • Marina Architect

    I’ve struggled with this dillema since 9/11. How media coverage relates to sympathy and consequence. An entitlement arises from media covered tragedies, while everyday tragedies remain hidden and a in a way a modality reflecting weakness. If you are a victim of 9/11 and Katrina, you receive wide support and a check for X dollars, while if your loved one was killed in a robbery or car accident or whatever, you receive a bill asking for money.

    How can we can change this gross injustice to include a wider fund for wider purpose. So many problems, so few leaders . . . so little integrity . . . Is everyone on the payroll of big pharma or some other special interest. Even Teachers in California have become a special interest in disguise. What’s wrong with modifying tenure requirements, no one else has job security.

  • Marina Architect

    Update: think of it this way, had this happened in Boston and it was flooded exactly the same way, would Republicans pass an initiative that would allow Bush crony led companies to repeal paying below “Prevailing Wages” to rebuild Boston. Bush wants his buddies to profit by not paying what would be potentially a large African American population “Prevailing Wages” to rebuild. Also, something tells me, Bostonites would have gotten bigger checks to rebuild. Mayor Nagin, Senator Landrieu, Everyone . . . prevent this from passing by echoing it around. This is huge. Stay on this. Paying prevailing wages and providing opportunities for African-American families to lead the rebuild effort is critical.

    Take a look at http://thinkprogress.org/ for some good coverage of what’s really happening behind the clean shaven facade of white guys running wild with our money.

  • So if you’re part of the media, can I blame you personally?

  • EverKarl

    Regarding the payment of “prevailing wages:”

    As the Wasington Post recently reported:

    “The 1931 Davis-Bacon Act was passed, in part, by segregationists hoping to stem the tide of blacks into the cities, but since then the law has been cherished by labor unions — and despised by many Republicans.”

    Not to mention the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

    On balance, Davis-Bacon benefits organized labor to the detriment of non-union labor. While folks may disagree over whether that’s a good thing, we should not pretend that the non-union workforce that is de facto shut out by D-B is a bunch of white guys. Rather, it remains (as was the case in ’31) a predominantly poor minority population. Imposing D-B here would not result in the employment of those poor minorities; rather, it would encourage the hiring of union labor that is, on balance, wealthier and whiter. It’s been a problem from the building of the Hoover Dam through attempts to hire public housing residents for urban renewal projects. It’s a big enough problem that whole programs have been developed simply to try to reduce these bad effects on the employment of poor minorities in our major cities.

  • freddie

    Some pro-Bush guy in trying to mock the Dems–gosh, what happened in nearby GOP state, without levee problems and above water level is doing just fine…simply ask those that used to live there…but as for the busses: how many bus drivers do you think left with their families or got caught up in some way and thus never got to drive busses?

    I do not fault Bush. After all, he appointed the head of Homeland Security, and if you read the mission statement of that august group, in the first paragraph you will note tfhat in addition to acts of terror, they are also responsible for Acts of Nature that cause major problems…

    If you excuse just about everything that the feds did not do promptly, you still have to ask: where the hell was the leader of the country when he ought to have been if not present at least on national tv…just what is a leader’s role in such disasters? If not sure, ask Rudy, also in GOP…he knew what his role was in 9/11 and was present.

  • Ravo

    One by one the purposeful misinterpretations by liberals will come back over the next years to bite the Democrats in the arse. As things come to light, and they will, they’ll find they’ve driven the final nail in their coffin when it comes to the people trusting them.

    ABC News producers probably didn’t hear what they expected when they sent Dean Reynolds to the Houston Astrodome’s parking lot to get reaction to President Bush’s speech from black evacuees from New Orleans:

    …and a story from a commenter…
    When my hometown in the Dakotas was destroyed by a flood and subsequent flood related fire in 1997, virtually everyone in the town evacuated themselves to shelter in virtually no time at all. No one waited for a government sponsored bus to come by and pick them up. If they were poor and did not have a functioning car, they walked/ waded the ten or so miles to get beyond the flood line and higher ground, carrying what they though they needed through water that still contained ice floes.

    The mayor, through the governor coordinated for a consolidated shelter to house the people at a series of large hangers at an airbase 12 miles beyond the safety line. By and large, people made it there on their own.

    THe people who refused to evacuate and were later rescued by the police (WHo stayed on the job and did not rush to loot the stores) were repeatedly asked why they did not evacuate earlier like the smart people simply by walking by the others at the shelter who had done so. THe usual blank stares were priceless.

    The exception to this were several nursing homes, who were evacuated by the city government when the dikes began to fail. There were zero casualties, even from a nursing home immediately below the dike because local officials went to work and did not worry about the credit, or who was responsible.

    As planned, FEMA arrived five days later, but had little to really do since the mayor and Governor were on the job doing what was necessary.

    If I hear any more shining about how the feds let these guys down, I am gonna scream.

    Was it laziness that prevented the New Orleans populace from walking out on their own, or a total dependance on the government to do it all for them?

    Sucking on that Federal Government Teat will kill you everytime…

  • Shalom Penny,

    Federal troops can go where ever the President sends them. The case of 101st Airborne and Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas is perhaps a good case in point. I don’t think Governor Orval Faubus called President Dwight Eisenhower and asked for those troops. Do you?

    President Bush rode his mountain bike, cut cake, strummed his guitar and continued his record-breaking vacation while his fellow Americans died in the wake of Hurrican Katrina. A leader would have acted. President Bush didn’t.



  • TDB

    I volunteered at the Houston Astrodome and at Reliant Center, the convention center next door, for six days following Katrina. While this story can only be verified through the victims I spoke to there, two of them, on separate days in separate buildings, told me that while in the Superdome, there was a rape of a minor (one person said she was seven, the other claimed her to be a teenager). Both of them said the assailant was beaten until unconscious and turned over to the National Guard, who proceeded to throw the man off of a bridge to his death. Understand I am not criticizing the citizens who apprehended the man, or the National Guard. Personally, I hope this story is true, as I find these monsters’ actions reprehensible in every way. My point is solely that there are stories that may be ignored by the media simply because they feel the general public could not take it.

  • TDB

    “Update: think of it this way, had this happened in Boston and it was flooded exactly the same way, would Republicans pass an initiative that would allow Bush crony led companies to repeal paying below “Prevailing Wages” to rebuild Boston. Bush wants his buddies to profit by not paying what would be potentially a large African American population “Prevailing Wages” to rebuild. Also, something tells me, Bostonites would have gotten bigger checks to rebuild. Mayor Nagin, Senator Landrieu, Everyone . . . prevent this from passing by echoing it around. This is huge. Stay on this. Paying prevailing wages and providing opportunities for African-American families to lead the rebuild effort is critical.”

    OK — to preface, I am a regular reader of think progress.org, and most people consider me a liberal, primarily because I think Bush is incompetent and has been a leader who acts solely for political gain. That being said. If he were acting for future political benefit, wouldn’t he OVERPAY the large African American population of New Orleans to rebuild? Seems to me this is an easy way to gain quick political points. If the Republicans could gain any inroads at all in the African American voting bloc, they stand a huge chance of winning in 2006 and beyond. Not adhering to Davis-Bacon is political suicide for them.

  • penny

    The case of 101st Airborne and Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas is perhaps a good case in point. I don’t think Governor Orval Faubus called President Dwight Eisenhower and asked for those troops. Do you?

    Get real. Your bogus analogy isn’t even close in a historical context. Sending troops into Little Rock to enforce Congressional civil rights legislation(and lest we forget, by a Republican president) and offering hurricane assistance via the National Guard have no symmetry.

    Blanco declined the offer. End of story.

    Should all Americans on vacation in other parts of the country have cancelled their vacation in the wake of the hurricane? Maybe it hasn’t occured to you but Presidents can’t really vacation like the rest of us. The job travels with them.

    By the way, what were you doing in the wake of the hurricane?

  • EverKarl

    re: Faubus (and later, Wallace)

    The federalization of the National Guard in those cases seems justified under the Insurrection Act. The White House considered it in this case, but concluded that both that the looting in N.O. did not constitute insurrection and that claiming it was would set a dangerous precedent.

  • Shalom Penny,

    So, President Eisenhower gets to send federal troops where he wants and President Bush doesn’t? What law changed in between?

    I was setting up and running the emergency community computer center here in Cleveland where we helped refugees file FEMA requests and locate lost family members. How about you?


    Jeff Hess

  • Elaine

    Thanks, UPDATE. The fact that Haliburton et al are going to bobble up most of the federal aid from Katrina, while still under investigation, makes me ill. How can we see that Congress doesn’t allow this corruption to go on?

  • Sheeneqa

    I am a black woman with 3 kids on Welfare. I did not have a way to leave New Orleans when Katrina came. I don’t fault anyone. Through education and I have learned from personal experience and from being on welfare that you can’t rely on Government to do everything. I saw the news and I heard the warnings to leave. I couldn’t for different reasons, but if people wanted to leave they had time to move north. Too many people want the Government to do everything for them. What did they think ? The governement was going to teleport them to the Star Ship Enterprise ???? And then those of us, me and my kids that got to get on a cruise ship had to deal with the crime of ignorate people on the ship. Katrina isn’t about white or black, Republican or Democrate. The problem is uneducated people who hear from people Bush is bad and to blame bush so they do. I dont like bush or any of his things, but what did he have to do with Katrina.
    I have been teach myself to further my education, that is the issue here ! Uneducated people who want a hand out. Well I hope people wake up, esp my people.

  • Leroy Davis

    Okay Sheenqa, I think you are a republican!!!

    But you do make a good point. I think its about uneducated people. Look at people that come here from Africa, with far less then what we have to grow up in, they come over here and far suppass us in Education. All we do is blame government and each other. I can tell you speak well from reading the way you type, your doing well educating yourself, Why are you educating yourself ? GED ? I hope you get off of welfare. What cruise ship were you on ?