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.