This morning, a pair of amiable reporters from NBC Nightly News dropped in to chat about the day ahead. Their bosses in New York had ordered them to stay another day or two, and they were clearly miffed because, for them, stories about rebuilding, recovery and restoration were merely a local news story. As one of them grumbled, Rita had devolved into a "power outage story." No bleeding, no leading in the TV biz.
But he's right about one thing: It's a local story. The havoc that Rita wreaked is of most concern to our local readers, not Manhattanites. The nation probably already knows all they want or need to know about Hurricane Rita and her swath of damage. They can get on to their own lives, perhaps even appreciating their untumbled homes and lives slightly more. People who look to the major national media -- CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News et al -- can expect the immediate developments while the story is fresh, but those outlets have a world to cover. Their attention will soon shift away because, face it, their readers/viewers are overwhelmingly uninterested in the local aftermath. As humans, we simply cannot devote the same attention to events on the other side of the globe that we do to events in our own neighborhood.
As much as I care about the uprooted lives in my community, I cannot expect NBC, CNN, Fox, major American newspapers and wire services -- or even bloggers -- to keep their focus on us. Their tastes, which mirror the public's tastes, are generally for fast-food, quick-hit news ... the high points in a news-filled world, not stories that will unfold for years. Today, less than three days after Rita struck, the top news stories in most other media include the arrest of Cindy Sheehan and the death of Don "Maxwell Smart" Adams.
In a politico-media world, the attention of the national media might serve to keep the focus of federal authorities. Rightly or wrongly, FEMA has been castigated roundly here for its slow response -- again -- but some national stories clearly dismiss the complaints of local authorities and reassure the rest of the nation that FEMA is on the ball this time.
The long-term task of telling a year-long -- or longer -- story falls to local media. That's what we do. The national media, by its nature, bungee-jumps into a situation and out again. While their work is generally laudable, the dirtier work is left to somebody else.
Some remarkable reporting has been done, particularly by newspapermen and -women on the ground here, many of whom bunked with us during the worst of the storm (by the way, if anyone knows the origins of the term "hunker down," please post!) I've had a chance to scan the major coverage and saw some outstanding work done under the same austere, rigorous conditions we face. The LA Times' Scott Gold had a marvelous piece, "Welcome to Hackberry: Population 0." From my "alma mater" paper, The Denver Post, John Ingold wrote about a twice-battered family in a very well done story.
But they'll all be gone next week, if not sooner. The tough work of reporting the recovery falls to us. And that's fine with me. We know these people, and hold them dearer. Not just as customers and sources, but as neighbors. That means we're better equipped to reflect their triumphs, heartbreaks and frailties.
President Bush arrives tomorrow for a look-see. I bet I know where our national colleagues will be, as they should. But we'll be there, too. Me personally? Nope. I'll be in my own neighborhood for a couple hours, as I was today, checking on friends' houses, hauling branches, sweeping up broken glass, and listening to my neighbors' stories ... taking the first steps forward, toward the way it was.