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Did Mainstream Media Ignore the Pakistani Deluge?

It's worth reviewing the events many Americans didn't see on TV.

| Thu Sep. 9, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

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 coups.)

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 US 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 US 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 States.

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.

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website. You can catch him discussing flooded Pakistan on the latest TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

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