The Media as a Security Threat to America

The Great Pakistani Deluge Never Happened; Don’t Tune In, It’s Not Important

The Great Deluge in Pakistan passed almost unnoticed in
the United States despite President Obama's repeated assertions that the
country is central to American security. Now, with new evacuations and
flooding afflicting Sindh Province and the long-term crisis only
beginning in Pakistan, it has washed almost completely off American
television and out of popular consciousness.

Don't think we haven't been here before.
In the late 1990s, the American mass media could seldom be bothered to
report on the growing threat of al-Qaeda. In 2002, it slavishly
parroted White House propaganda about Iraq, helping prepare the way for a
senseless war. No one yet knows just what kind of long-term
instability the Pakistani floods are likely to create, but count on one
thing: the implications for the United States are likely to be
significant and by the time anyone here pays much attention, it will
already be too late.

Few Americans were shown -- by the media conglomerates of their
choice -- the heartbreaking scenes of eight million Pakistanis displaced
into tent cities, of the submerging of a string of mid-sized cities
(each nearly the size of New Orleans), of vast areas of crops ruined, of
infrastructure swept away, damaged, or devastated at an almost
unimaginable level, of futures destroyed, and opportunistic Taliban
bombings continuing. The boiling disgust of the Pakistani public with
the incompetence, insouciance, and cupidity of their corrupt ruling
class is little appreciated.

The likely tie-in of these floods (of a sort no one in Pakistan had
ever experienced) with global warming was seldom mentioned. Unlike,
say, BBC Radio, corporate television did not tell the small stories --
of, for instance, the female sharecropper who typically has no rights to
the now-flooded land on which she grew now-ruined crops thanks to a
loan from an estate-owner, and who is now penniless, deeply in debt, and
perhaps permanently excluded from the land. That one of the biggest
stories of the past decade could have been mostly blown off by
television news and studiously ignored by the American public is a
further demonstration that there is something profoundly wrong with
corporate news-for-profit. (The print press was better at covering with the crisis, as was publically-supported radio, including the BBC and National Public Radio.)

In his speech on the withdrawal of designated combat units from Iraq last week, Barack Obama put Pakistan
front and center in American security doctrine, "But we must never lose
sight of what's at stake. As we speak, al-Qaeda continues to plot
against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border regions of
Afghanistan and Pakistan." Even if Pakistan were not a major non-NATO
ally of the United States, it is the world's sixth most populous country
and the 44th largest economy,
according to the World Bank. The flooding witnessed in the Indus
Valley is unprecedented in the country's modern history and was caused by
a combination of increasingly warm ocean water and a mysterious
blockage of the jet stream, which drew warm, water-laden air north to
Pakistan, over which it burst in sheets of raging liquid. If the floods
that followed prove a harbinger of things to come, then they are a
milestone in our experience of global warming, a big story in its own

junkies who watch a lot of television broadcasts could not help but
notice with puzzlement that as the cosmic catastrophe unfolded in
Pakistan, it was nearly invisible on American networks. I did a
LexisNexis search for the terms "Pakistan" and "flood" in broadcast
transcripts (covering mostly American networks) from July 31st to
September 4th, and it returned only about 1,100 hits. A search for the
name of troubled actress Lindsay Lohan returned 653 search results in
the same period and one for "Iraq," more than 3,000 hits (the most the
search engine will count). A search for "mosque" and "New York" yielded
1,300 hits. Put another way, the American media, whipped into
an artificial frenzy by anti-Muslim bigots like New York gubernatorial
candidate Rick Lazio and GOP hatemonger Newt Gingrich, were far more
interested in the possible construction of a Muslim-owned interfaith
community center two long blocks from the old World Trade Center site
than in the sight of millions of hapless Pakistani flood victims.

Of course, some television correspondents did good work trying to cover the calamity, including CNN's
Reza Sayah and Sanjay Gupta, but they generally got limited air time
and poor time slots. (Gupta's special report on the Pakistan floods
aired the evening of September 5th, the Sunday before Labor Day, not
exactly a time when most viewers might be expected to watch hard news.)
As for the global warming angle, it was not completely ignored. On
August 13th, reporter Dan Harris interviewed NASA scientist Gavin
Schmidt on ABC's "Good Morning America" show at 7:45 am. The subject
was whether global warming could be the likely cause for the Pakistan
floods and other extreme weather events of the summer, with Schmidt
pointing out that such weather-driven cataclysms are going to become
more common later in the twenty-first century. Becky Anderson at CNN
did a similar segment at 4 pm on August 16th. My own search of news
transcripts suggests that that was about it for commercial television.

The "Worst Disaster" TV Didn't Cover

It's worth reviewing the events that most Americans hardly know happened:

The deluge began on July 31st, when heavier than usual monsoon rains
caused mudslides in the northwest of Pakistan. Within two days, the
rapidly rising waters had already killed 800 people. On August 2nd, the
United Nations announced that about a million people had been driven
from their homes. Among the affected areas was the Swat Valley, already
suffering from large numbers of refugees and significant damage from an
army offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the spring-summer of
2009. In the district of Dera Ismail Khan alone, hundreds of villages
were destroyed by the floods, forcing shelterless villagers to sleep on
nearby raised highways.

The suddenly homeless waited in vain for the government to begin to
deliver aid, as public criticism of President Asaf Ali Zardari and Prime
Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani surged. President Zardari's opulent trip
to France and Britain (during which he visited his chateau in Normandy)
at this moment of national crisis was pilloried. On August 8th in
Birmingham, England, a furious Pakistani-British man threw both his shoes at him, repeating a famously humiliating incident
in which an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at President George W. Bush.
Fearing the response in Pakistan, the president's Pakistan People's
Party attempted to censor the video of the incident, and media offices
in that country were closed down or sometimes violently attacked if they
insisted on covering it. Few or no American broadcast outlets appear
to have so much as mentioned the incident, though it pointed to the
increasing dissatisfaction of Pakistanis with their elected government.
(The army has gotten better marks for its efficient aid work, raising
fears that some ambitious officers could try to parlay a newfound
popularity into yet another in the country's history of military

By August 5th, the floods had taken an estimated 1,600 lives, though
some aid officials complained (and would continue to do so) that the
death toll was far larger than reported. Unlike the Haitian earthquake
or the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this still building and far
more expansive disaster was initially greeted by the world community
with a yawn. The following day, the government evacuated another
half-million people as the waters headed toward southern Punjab. At
that point, some 12 million Pakistanis had been adversely affected in
some way. On August 7th, as the waters advanced on the southernmost
province, Sindh, through some of the country's richest farmlands just
before harvest time, another million people were evacuated. Prime
Minister Gilani finally paid his first visit to some of the
flood-stricken regions.

By August 9th, nearly 14 million people had been affected by the
deluge, the likes of which had never been experienced in the region in
modern history, and at least 20% of the country was under water. At
that point, in terms of its human impact, the catastrophe had already
outstripped both the 2004 tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. On
August 10th, the United Nations announced that six million Pakistanis
needed immediate humanitarian aid just to stay alive.

On August 14th, another half-million people were evacuated
from the Sindhi city of Jacobabad. By now, conspiracy theories were
swirling inside Pakistan about landlords who had deliberately cut levees
to force the waters away from their estates and into peasant villages,
or about the possibility that the U.S. military had diverted the waters
from its base at Jacobabad. It was announced that 18 million Pakistanis
had now been adversely affected by the floods, having been displaced,
cut off from help by the waters, or having lost crops, farms, and other
property. The next day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, surveying
the damage, pronounced it was "the worst disaster" he had ever seen.

The following week a second crest of river water hit Sindh Province. On August 30th, it submerged the city of Sujawal (population 250,000). The next day, however, there were a mere 16 mentions of Pakistan on all
American television news broadcasts, mostly on CNN. On Labor Day
weekend, another major dam began to fail in Sindh and, by September 6th,
several hundred thousand more people had to flee from Dadu district, with all but four districts in that rich agricultural province having seen at least some flooding.

Today, almost six million Pakistanis are still homeless,
and many have not so much as received tents for shelter. In large
swaths of the country, roads, bridges, crops, power plants -- everything
that matters to the economy -- were inundated and damaged or simply
swept away. Even if the money proves to be available for repairs (and
that remains an open question), it will take years to rebuild what was
lost and, for many among those millions, the future will mean nothing
but immiseration, illness, and death.

Why the Floods Weren't News

In the United States, the contrast with the wall-to-wall cable news
coverage of the Haitian earthquake in January and the consequent
outpouring of public donations was palpable. Not only has the United
Nations' plea for $460 million in aid to cover the first three months of
flood response still not been met, but in the past week donations seem to have dried up. The U.S. government pledged $200 million (some diverted from an already planned aid program for Pakistan) and provided helicopter gunships to rescue cut-off refugees or ferry aid to them.

What of American civil society? No rock concerts were organized to help Pakistani children sleeping on highways or in open fields infested with vermin. No sports events offered receipts to aid victims at risk from cholera and other diseases. It was as if the great Pakistani deluge were happening in another dimension, beyond the ken of Americans.

A number of explanations
have been offered for the lack of empathy, or even interest, not to
speak of a visible American unwillingness to help millions of
Pakistanis. As a start, there were perfectly reasonable fears, even
among Pakistani-Americans, that such aid money might simply be pocketed
by corrupt government officials. But was the Haitian government really
so much more transparent and less corrupt than the Pakistani one?

It has also been suggested that Americans suffer from donor fatigue,
given the string of world disasters in recent years and the bad domestic
economy. On August 16th, for instance, Glenn Beck fulminated:
"We can't keep spending. We are broke! Game over... no one is going to
ride in to save you... You see the scene in Pakistan? People were waiting
in line for aids [sic] from floods. And they were complaining, how come
the aid is not here? Look, when America is gone, who's going to save
the people in Pakistan? See, we got to change this one, because we're
the ones that always ride in to save people."

Still, the submerging of a fifth of a country the size of Pakistan is
-- or at least should be -- a dramatic global event and even small
sums, if aggregated, would matter. (A dollar and a half from each
American would have met the U.N. appeal.) Some have suggested that the Islamophobia visible in the debate
about the Park 51 Muslim-owned community center in lower Manhattan left
Americans far less willing to donate to Muslim disaster victims.

And what of those national security arguments that nuclear-armed
Pakistan is crucial not just to the American war in Afghanistan, but to
the American way of life? Ironically, the collapse of the
neoconservative narrative about what it takes to make the planet's "sole
superpower" secure appears to have fallen on President Obama's head.
One of the few themes he adopted wholeheartedly from the Bush
administration has been the idea that a poor Asian country of 170
million halfway around the world, facing a challenge from a few thousand
rural fundamentalists, is the key to the security of the United

If the Pakistani floods reveal one thing, it's that Americans now
look on such explanations through increasingly jaundiced eyes. At the
moment, no matter whether it's the Afghan War or those millions of
desperate peasants and city dwellers in Pakistan, the public has largely
decided to ignore the AfPak theater of operations. It's not so
surprising. Having seen the collapse of our financial system at the
hands of corrupt financiers produce mass unemployment and mass mortgage
foreclosures, they have evidently decided, as even Glenn Beck admits,
it's "game over" for imperial adventures abroad.

Another explanation may also bear some weight here, though you won't
normally hear much about it. Was the decision of the corporate media
not to cover the Pakistan disaster intensively a major factor in the
public apathy that followed, especially since so many Americans get
their news from television?

The lack of coverage needs to be explained, since corporate media usually love
apolitical, weather-induced disasters. But covering a flood in a
distant Asian country is, for television, expensive and logistically
challenging, which in these tough economic times may have influenced
programming decisions. Obviously, there is as well a tendency in
capitalist news to cover what will attract advertising dollars. Add to
this the fact that, unlike the Iraq "withdrawal" story
or the "mosque at Ground Zero" controversy, the disaster in Pakistan
was not a political football between the GOP and the Democratic Party.
What if, in fact, Americans missed this calamity mostly because a bad
news story set in a little-known South Asian country filled with Muslim
peasants is not exactly "Desperate Housewives" and couldn't hope to sell
tampons, deodorant, or Cialis, or because it did not play into domestic
partisan politics?

The great Pakistani deluge did not exist, it seems, because it was
not on television, would not have delivered audiences to products, and
was not all about us. As we saw on September 11, 2001, and again in
March 2003, however, the failure of our electronic media to inform the
public about centrally important global developments is itself a
security threat to the republic.

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