Briefly, but dramatically, the political failures that turned New Orleans
and many other Gulf cities and towns into a human catastrophe, shattered the
bonds of conformity between the mass media and the government. Critical reporters
described the failure of the government’s Homeland Security to evacuate
vulnerable poor people and the absence of basic food and water for the victims.
The media contrasted Bush partying with Republican cronies in California, Vice
President Chaney on the golfing green, Secretary of State Rice shopping in Manhattan
and Homeland Security boss Chertoff claiming that disaster relief was in excellent
shape with the cries of desperation and destitution of tens of thousands of
poverty-stricken and hungry African Americans and poor whites barely surviving
in a dark, filthy convention center and sports arena.
By Day Four of the disaster, the critical impassioned voices were replaced
by measured voices of official compassion. Photo opportunities of Bush abounded;
the National Guardmen were arriving and the Government was responding. The “news”
was about the heroic aid workers with photogenic white guards and nurses cradling
black infants, bringing relief to the “refugees” and ending the
growing lawlessness, violence and “looting” among the survivors.
Interviews with top military officials focused on the threats to the soldiers
from violent elements among the “refugees”. Visual images of armored
troop carriers, heavily armed Special Forces against a backdrop of angry desolate
people, resonated with the war propaganda from Iraq. What was an exercise in
humanitarian aid was converted into a counter-insurgency operation. By the end
of the sixth day the mass media converted the national government’s political
failures to protect citizens into a successful military occupation.
The Militarization of New Orleans
Nothing captures the “revised line” of the media better
than the prominent place given to the government’s order to “Shoot
to kill looters”. Not a whimper of protest, not a critical voice: The
media converted the destitute city into a war zone: New Orleans became Fallujah.
The media dredged up every rumor, hearsay, un-substantiated third hand
report of child rape and murder to provide a “context” for the “new
reality” – the militarization of a devastated American city. The
media are well prepared for that scenario: Embedded journalist featured soldiers
handing out concentrated military field rations (totally useless for small children
and dehydrated elderly) while the beating of blacks carrying groceries (blacks
‘loot’ food; whites ‘find’ food) was omitted. Over a
hundred thousand people without homes, jobs and savings, water, food and sanitation,
were first and foremost subject to military occupation… to protect the
banks, boutiques and jewelry stores from “looters”. Sixteen thousand
troops and Special Forces backed by armored carriers and helicopters have taken
over the city.
There were no announcements or plans for civil reconstruction – jobs
for those without jobs and plans to re-house the tens of thousands of families
left homeless. Instead the media repeatedly played on white paranoia:
black rapists terrorizing neighborhoods, shelters, anywhere they could flag
a rumor… It is surprising that ‘cannibalism wasn’t included
in the medias list of ‘outrages’ committed by the “Africanized”
destitute. There was hardly any mention of the “looters”
who braved the swirling floods and military snipers to bring bottled water to
the elderly, dry cereal to children and cans of sardines to the hungry. Ninety-nine
point percent of the poor blacks were destitute but the media focused on the
1% of criminals. “Zero tolerance” declared Governor Blanco of Louisiana
to titillate the President and to prime the automatic rifles of the Special
Forces. The black mayor of New Orleans, caught between the majority of blacks
confined to filth, living amidst the decaying dead and the sewage of the living
and the militarization of the city, appealed to the outside world.
The daily rape of a city, of an entire population of the most vulnerable,
is condoned. While the media pursue a witness to the rumored rape of a 14-year-old
several days earlier they ignore reports of mass death, fecal contaminated waters
and listless, dehydrated babies. The mass state propaganda machine focuses on
the President signing an aid bill and promising Law and Order.
Criminalizing the Victims
Given the government’s total abandonment of tens of thousands of poor,
starving and homeless blacks, it was obvious that many people would scavenge
for food and water. By deliberately linking the survivors with “looters”
and “rapists”, public officials set the stage for the subsequent
militarization and de-facto martial law – fertile terrain for the killing
fields. The first reports that filtered out from (unembedded) eyewitness
reports mentioned groups of Guardsmen beating the self-help survivors. Military
reports cited the killing of several ‘snipers’.
No doubt the Government’s first pre-occupation is to saturate
the city with the military to prevent the survivors from organizing for justice
and to channel all communications about the state of the city through officially
approved sources. Even more significantly the military defines the nature of
the situation as a problem of criminality and the repressive “solution”
through maximum control and minimum aid.
The Magical Powers of the Mass Media
On the seventh day after the human catastrophe, the mass media were
flooded with the faces, voices and compassionate rhetoric of all the major and
minor spokespeople of the Bush Administration. Every major television network,
every featured program presented Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Chertoff and various
Generals speaking in mutual admiration of the Herculean efforts, of the courageous
and generous Guardsmen, aid workers etc.
The mass media commentators and interviewers wholeheartedly co-operated
in decriminalizing the state. The officials guilty of crimes against
the humanity of poor and destitute citizens were transformed into humanitarian
saviors. Not a single word of self-criticism from the officials and none suggested
by the media moderators. The few dissident critical voices of the first
few days were chastened and disappeared from the television screen. The US media
was the only place in the world in which the guilty officials were exonerated.
Media-State mass propaganda had its impact: Public opinion polls indicated
that more (70%) of the public were hostile of the President’s petroleum
policy and high gas prices than of the gross political neglect which caused
the death of thousands of their, mostly black, compatriots (66%).
By publicizing the President’s belated and inadequate aid and amplifying
the extent of criminality among the destitute, the mass media has racially polarized
the catastrophe between generous compassionate white humanitarians and ungrateful,
hostile black “refugees” – a term stripping the victims of
their citizenship and rights.
Washington’s “Shoot to Kill” order applied to water
bottle snatchers and the real or imagined snipers. Negative labeling of the
victims by the media heightens the public’s distrust of the testimonials
of dehydrated children and frail grandmothers. Criminalization, demonization
and militarization is what Washington does best. Repeating
official propaganda and censoring dissident interviews is what the US mass media
does best. Not a single mass media outlet, not a single one of the
major television outlets mentioned the highly critical reports of the most prestigious
overseas media. Reports from Le Monde, the Guardian, El Pais, Der Spiegel, La
Jornada were never mentioned.
Photo propaganda and captions in big print are especially effective in our
boobocracy and it is what our mass media does best. Photographs of Bush
hugging a cleaned-up, photogenic ‘survivor’, excluded the bodies
floating in the debris. Ubiquitous photos appeared of Bush signing
the aid bill…seven days after the fact, but not photos of Bush at a Republican
fund raiser on Day One of the hurricane. No photos of Vice President
Chaney golfing on Day Three, while cadavers floated down Main Street in Biloxi,
Mississippi. No photos of the President and CEO of the Red Cross depositing
her over $640,000 salary, while 40,000 people lacked clean water in “refugee
sites”. No photos of Secretary Rice at a Broadway comedy on Day Four while
the bodies of old black ladies decomposed near their outraged and destitute
relatives and neighbors.
The mass media made an abrupt turn, adapting and shaping the images
of the Administration’s catastrophe. In seven days the magic of the media
transformed the Bush team from incompetent and ignorant leaders to decisive
and caring officials. At the same time the desperate, dying and furious were
converted into an unruly, crime-ridden, ungrateful and chaotic mob. The political
message was clear: Repression and militarization were priority conditions for
survival and humanitarian aid. The city had to be under de facto martial law
before it could be saved. Viet Nam and Falluja come to mind. After all, counter-insurgency
is what we do best.
According to the President, his Cabinet members and the media: “America
is rising to the occasion.” We won’t forget the 10,000’s of
dead and injured, we’ll even lower the flag for a few days – that
is if the Congressional Black Caucus raises the issue. As the President would
say, “Let’s move on. We’ve got a war to win in Iraq.”
In the other America, the victims, their friends, their brothers and sisters
are not deceived. Certainly the Europeans, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans
have images etched in their collective memory: of frantic, desperate New Orleans
poor with faces staring angrily at an indifferent government.
But will white America remember who are the criminals and who are the victims?