It’s too bad it takes a disaster like Hurricane Katrina to draw
the media’s attention to the disenfranchised and economically marginal
in this “land of plenty” but that seems to be an obvious conclusion
from this week’s coverage of the tragic situation in New Orleans. After
years of drift by both TV news and newspapers toward serving advertisers who
seek consumers with money rather than citizens who want to be nourished with
information, this turn of events would be celebrated if it weren’t for
the tragedy it took to generate it.
Even then it was a mixed bag. CNN’s curmudgeonly Jack
Cafferty, repeatedly asked the question whether aid would be so slow in coming
if the victims were the white, upper middle class instead of the largely poor,
African American faces of victims that were flashed on the nation’s television
screens this week. Other reporters started referring to the victims as refugees—quickly
consigning the victims to third world status—a kind of “other”
status that suggests they are less than “normal” Americans.
But largely, the reporting corps which has made it to New Orleans, many of
whom had reported disasters abroad, have expressed their own personal shock
at what was happening within the borders of the richest country in the world.
While right wing radio commentators were busy victim blaming (who, in their
pathetic world view, undoubtedly were wondering why families on welfare weren’t
just packing up their Cadillacs and getting out of the city), reporters on the
ground saw the dehumanized way in which people were being forced to cope and
actually were able to generate some empathy for their plight.
The right wing talk crowd was merely aping the attitude expressed repeatedly
by George Bush’s FEMA director, Michael Brown, who in one interview on
MSNBC said several times “those who chose not to evacuate” before
finally amending it to could not evacuate. This was countered by some reporters
astute and knowledgeable enough to report that over a third of New Orleans residents
do not own cars. Other officials, notably the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen
Blanco, started talking tough about “shoot to kill” orders for those
caught looting when it was obvious that most looting was a matter of survival—food
and water—and that only a few were trying to procure luxury items Again,
some reporters commented that shoot to kill orders sounded more than a little
harsh for a population obviously experiencing severe psychological and physical
This discovery (or perhaps in the legacy of the great documentaries like “Harvest
of Shame,” re-discovery) of the poor by the nation’s news media
is a welcome development after years in which things like welfare reform and
health care were treated largely as a budget issues rather than issues of human
dignity. In many ways, the media are merely following the cues of political
leaders on both sides of the aisle who are usually preoccupied with playing
to the issues of campaign contributors. A politics driven by campaign contributions
given by a tiny minority of affluent people will not be focusing on issues which
affect the vast majority struggling to make ends meet.
Perhaps this tragedy will mark a turn in values and priorities for
the nation’s news reporters. Perhaps many of these well paid
denizens of journalism now recognize there are two very separate Americas—the
incredibly affluent which jets about the country and world like it is at their
disposal and the growing sector of America which is experiencing a long, slow
downward mobility as manufacturing and service work wages decline to sweatshop
levels. Perhaps the kind of reporting which can unite the country will replace
the kind of reporting which has exacerbated its divisions. Perhaps.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath.