A few hours ago I sat at our table on the top floor of our six-floor building in northern Manhattan. I was eating lunch with my wife. Suddenly, the paintings on the walls moved. The table shook. A six-foot-tall medicine cabinet rattled. Weird.
I looked at Louise, she looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“What did you do?”
She refused to believe me. “You look guilty.” Apparently she was convinced I’d managed to move our furniture and caused our apartment to shake through some type of psychic ability, or I’d been violently pushing the table with my hands under the table cloth. A few minutes later she went online and saw the news of the East Coast earthquake and she was finally convinced of my innocence.
It hasn’t even been two hours since the quake hit. And already it’s sort of cycled through the new media world. It’s pretty much the same cycle of any breaking news event these days: Confusion; instant news; confirmation; jokes; people sick of it; people sick of others being sick of it; accusations of hysteria; the who cares? brigade; the stop-talking-about-it-already segment; East Coast people are wimps for being worried or even talking about it; have we already forgotten about Libya?; are the power plants safe?; yes they are, shut up already; do you realize people are starving?; if this happened in Fargo no one would care, especially those New York City elite snobs and on and on and on.
And all that in 90 minutes, or the typical running time of a disaster movie about a 10.0 earthquake hitting New York City.
It’s all predictable. Some points.
* “STOP FREAKING OUT! GOD! IT’S AN EARTHQUAKE! THEY HAPPEN MILLIONS OF TIMES A DAY!” True. But are people really freaking out? Some are, sure. People who were trapped in large buildings in downtown Manhattan perhaps panicked a bit as their building swayed and security told them to evacuate down the steps. In about two weeks there will be a pretty big anniversary of a pretty big event in the nation’s history. You can maybe understand why someone in downtown NYC, in a tall building, might be a little concerned when they feel their office shaking.
But again, what does “freaking out” mean? People went outside from Baltimore to Long Island to see if there was any damage. They called their family to tell them, more with awe and surprise than concern, “Did you hear about the earthquake?” Is that freaking out? The TV networks, yes, covered it. Is that freaking out? People on the East Coast tweeted that they felt something, something they don’t feel every day or any day. Is that freaking out? People were reacting, people were living. That’s what happens. It doesn’t mean anyone thought the world was ending, except those who think that all the time.
* “Earthquake? Cha, who cares? Back in my day – and back in our home state – we deal with 7.0 quakes on a daily basis. You can’t even walk to the grocery store here without being knocked to the ground by a tremor. You get up, dust yourself off, and continue on your way. Deal with it, people.” Have seen tweets and message board posts from West Coasters that are, basically, taunts, as if they’re Lakers fans making fun of Knicks fans for the Isiah Thomas reign. “God, you people can’t take a 6.0 quake? Hilarious.”
Every section of the country has something they take strange pride in when it comes to weather or natural disasters.The South can take heat. Californians, earthquakes. New Yorkers – anything and everything.
For Midwesterners, it’s snow and cold. And I admit to doing this myself in NYC. Lifetime New Yorkers look at me with a combination of pity and awe when they read stories during the winter about 20 inches of snow, -25 degree temperatures and -50 windshield readings. They’re amazed that someone made it out alive. I play it up. Yeah, it’s wicked weather. Terrible things. The implication is that Minnesotans are somehow tougher than the East Coast effete who can, perhaps, handle a snowstorm, but not snow and cold.
And Minnestoans laugh – their hearty Midwestern laughs – when a storm hits the south or the West Coast. That’s when they get to make fun of others.
They watch TV reports of 50-care pileups or people slipping on the sidewalks. An inch of snow and they don’t know how to drive in it? Meanwhile, whenever I’m home during the winter, all I hear is people complaining about the weather. They hate it just as much as those who only get it once a decade. Sure, they ice fish and snowmobile and drive and live their lives but that’s because they have to. Humans adapt. If the south received weekly snowstorms, guess what? They’d eventually adapt too. They’d learn to live with it. Just because people in one particular region of the country are more familiar with certain weather patterns or disaster patterns does not make them better, tougher, smarter or stronger. It just means you’re used to it.
And if the East Coast received earthquakes on a daily basis, they’d deal with them with more nonchalance too.
Californians and snow? There’s the exception. They wouldn’t adapt. Those people are wimps.
* “If this happened in the Midwest, these TV cameras would be nowhere to be found! I’m sick of Washington and New York getting all the attention!” This is sort of the natural disaster equivalent of a swimming parent calling in to the sports desk to say that the newspaper is “costing my son a scholarship. Do you realize he finished fourth in the butterfly and third in the relay but your fishwrap doesn’t even write stories and only puts the top two finishers in the scoreboard section? If this was a basketball game, you’d write four stories on it.”
I agree that the media often blows things completely out of proportion. Everyone knows this, even the producers and executives and editors responsible for blowing things out of proportion. That said, the simple fact is there is a lot of media out here. When a quake hits and buildings start to sway and the White House, Pentagon and NYC City Hall are evacuated, there will be more cameras there to document it than there would be in, say, Mankato, Minnesota.
But this idea that somehow something like this would be ignored if it happened elsewhere is, well, ludicrous. Take, for instance, the horrific Minot flooding. The New York Times wrote numerous stories on the terrible events in that city. And they should have. The damage was much greater than whatever will eventually happen with this quake. it was a flood that completely altered the city’s present and will negatively affect its future. And the Times – and other East Coast media – wrote about those floods and others here and here and here and here. TV networks had their cameras ready. When Joplin, Missouri, suffered a devastating tornado, the TV anchors and their pretty hair descended on the town to cover the aftermath and tell the stories.
In today’s media world, everything will eventually get covered, whether it happens in New York or 2,000 miles away from Yankee Stadium. If an earthquake hit my hometown of Janesville, the Waseca County News would be there to cover it. But eventually, if a building fell or it became known that it was the first time in 150 years the town had an earthquake, someone from the evil East Coast media would write about it or blog about it or put a picture of it up on the TV screen. Of course, if the media would start talking about, they’d eventually be accused of blowing it out of proportion.
Bottom line: The media’s not set on ignoring your region’s disaster. There’s no grand conspiracy against small town folks in the middle part of the country.
But your local paper? Totally messing up your kid’s chance at a swimming scholarship.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming. Back to the overreactions, complaints about the coverage, taunts of regional superiority and expressions of boredom about an event that is – truth be told – unlike anything that’s happened in this part of the world in, oh, 130 years. And if you’re already sick of it? Don’t worry, by tomorrow everyone will have moved on to something new – only the reactions will be the same.