Aug 1 2006

Katrina’s Vanishing Victims

Media forget the 'rediscovered' poor

New Orleans' post-Katrina flooding (photo: Gary Nichols/US Navy)

New Orleans after the post-Katrina collapse of the flood control system (photo: Gary Nichols/US Navy)

It happened on the afternoon of September 1, three days after Hurricane Katrina pushed a wall of water onto the city of New Orleans. CNN had been airing just-received videos of tens of thousands of people trapped at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, without food or supplies-scenes of elderly residents left to die by the roadside, of children chanting, “We want help!” Anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to CNN commentator Jack Cafferty to ask how it could be that, with all the advance warnings of disaster bearing down on the city, so many people had still been left in harm’s way.

Cafferty’s reply was, to say the least, unexpected, especially coming from a man who’d once insisted (3/31/04) that the word “liberal” was synonymous with “communist.” “There is a great big elephant in the living room that the media seems content to ignore,” Cafferty told Blitzer:‘s Jack Shafer wrote today in his column that television coverage has shied away from talking about race and class. . . . Almost every person we’ve seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, to the looters, to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor. Many of them didn’t follow the evacuation orders because they didn’t have the means to get out of town. They just couldn’t do it. A lot of them are sick. A lot of them don’t have cars. A lot of them just didn’t have the means to leave the Big Easy. And they’re still there.

It was an observation that was soon everywhere in the U.S. media (Extra! Update, 10/05). Newsweek (9/19/05) put the face of a crying African-American child on its cover, alongside the headline “Poverty, Race and Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame.” Inside, in an article titled “The Other America” (echoing the book by Michael Harrington that launched the “rediscovery” of U.S. poverty in the 1960s), senior editor Jonathan Alter noted, “After a decade of improvement in the 1990s, poverty in America is actually getting worse,” and argued that “it takes a catastrophe like Katrina to strip away the old evasions, hypocrisies and not-so-benign neglect.”

“All of a sudden, people are saying, ‘Do we really have that level of poverty here?'” George Mason University professor Toni-Michelle Travis told Long Island’s Newsday (10/2/05). “Are there people really trying to hold families together with substandard education, living in substandard housing and with no financial resources to fall back on?” Even George W. Bush decried the “deep, persistent poverty” that “all of us saw on television,” declaring, “We have a duty to confront poverty with bold action.”

On CNN‘s Reliable Sources (9/18/05), Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose was asked how much longer “the underclass” would remain in the news after Katrina. He replied: “I think it’s going to be a story for a long time, and a long time meaning at least six months or more. And I think these issues are going to be finally examined.”

Broken promises

Contrary to Cose’s predictions, “a long time” turned out to be a matter of weeks. An Extra! analysis of media coverage since Katrina—of the hurricane’s aftermath along the Gulf Coast and of poverty issues in general—found that with few exceptions, the media’s rediscovery of impoverished Americans lasted barely a month. While occasional individual journalists did follow up on how New Orleans’ poorest residents were faring in the months after the hurricane (see sidebars ‘They Didn’t Even Know This Was Mardi Gras’ and ‘Can’t We Give This a Rest?’), these seldom went beyond tales of individual tragedy, examining neither the systemic causes of their destitution, nor what could be done to alleviate their woes.

The irony is that coverage of poverty has dropped even as poverty itself has been on the rise. “Not only are more people poor, people are living in deeper poverty than they have in decades,” notes Avis Jones-DeWeever of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who has studied Katrina and its aftermath.

I think most people really have no clue what it’s like to be poor in America. When people saw what it meant not to have a car, and not to have enough money to pay for a ticket to get you and your family out of harm’s way when this huge storm is coming, it just made real for some people, in a way that they’ve never conceptualized, what are the everyday implications of poverty.

It was to be a short-lived lesson. A simple Nexis search of major news outlets for stories mentioning the word “poverty” shows a spike in September 2005, followed by a drop back thereafter. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall found that for the eight months following Katrina, network newscasts spent an average of four seconds per night on poverty issues—up from an average of two-and-a-half seconds in the years before Katrina, but still only half the time devoted to the doings of the stock market.

The first signs that the media’s eye had begun to wander came when two more hurricanes—Rita and Wilma—socked the Gulf Coast and Florida, respectively, in the two months following Katrina’s landfall. When Hurricane Wilma rampaged through South Florida in late October, local papers reported on the dire effects on South Florida’s poor. “People who are already poor, who are already living on the edge, are facing two disasters: the storm and the aftermath,” University of Delaware disaster researcher Benigno Aguirre told the Miami Herald (10/30/05). The paper reported that many low-income residents, unable to afford soaring gas prices, had been left unable to get to work, or even to reach relief distribution sites to restock refrigerators filled with spoiled food after days without power.

For news outlets outside the state, though, these people and their troubles remained largely invisible. In the New York Times, the poor were largely relegated to footnotes in coverage of the hurricanes’ aftermath, including such references as an item (10/25/05) blaming low-income residents in Cancun, Mexico for looting after Wilma, threatening “residents and tourists.”

Return to Mardi Gras

Virtually every major news outlet in the nation sent reporters to cover the six-month anniversary of Katrina, especially since it fortuitously coincided with New Orleans’ first post-hurricane Mardi Gras. (More than 1,000 outlets requested media credentials to cover Mardi Gras, according to the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education—3/1/06.) CBS‘s Kelly Cobiella reported that “even in the French Quarter, the ghost of Katrina haunts party-goers,” though the Chicago Tribune‘s headline (3/1/06) was “Fat Tuesday Brings the Joy Back.” The New York Times‘ compromise (3/1/06): “Amid Smiles and Sighs, a Leaner Fat Tuesday Returns to New Orleans.”

But the Gulf Coast’s poor had by then drifted out of the spotlight; hardly any journalists ventured beyond the familiar streets of the French Quarter, let alone traveled to Houston or Atlanta to visit with the diaspora of several hundred thousand poor New Orleaners who were still unable to return.

One New York Times piece (3/1/06) focused on nearly 2,000 Louisianans who remained missing, but glossed over economic reasons why these people might have lost contact with their loved ones, describing them only as “adrift in America, having failed, for a variety of reasons, to remain in touch with their own families.” Echoing CBS‘s Harry Smith’s declaration (Early Show, 2/28/06) that Katrina victims were “really drowning in red tape now vs. the floodwaters they faced six months ago,” the Los Angeles Times‘ front-page look at the displaced (2/26/06) focused on homeowners facing “red tape” and “tightfisted insurance companies.” The L.A. Times article mentioned only at the very end that “there have been no provisions incorporated in the city’s rebuilding plans for renters, an omission that disproportionately affects black residents and poorer areas.”

On CNN‘s American Morning (2/27/06), Miles O’Brien devoted the bulk of his coverage to preparations for Mardi Gras, reminiscing about his turn atop a float in the previous night’s Bacchus Parade; co-anchor Soledad O’Brien reported from the New Orleans Convention Center: “They’ve ripped out that nasty carpet that was frankly full of debris and feces and urine. . . . They’ve done a really good job of bringing it back ahead of schedule, actually.” Neither of the O’Briens spoke to any of the displaced about when they themselves might be brought back.

The Mardi Gras throngs fit with the predominant mood of the six-month anniversary coverage, which was an upbeat focus on how New Orleans would rise again. A widely reprinted column by Knight Ridder‘s Leonard Pitts (3/5/06) noted that a Gallup poll had asked black and white New Orleans residents about Katrina’s impact on their lives, and found that although a much higher proportion of blacks had seen their possessions wiped out by the storm, “black New Orleans is more optimistic than white New Orleans about the city’s recovery”—a result that pleased Pitts because “the despair is not where you would expect it to be.”

In perhaps the most determinedly optimistic story of the genre, the Washington Post (3/10/06) described a “post-storm boom” along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, noting “surviving hotels and restaurants are filled to overflowing, beachfront land prices are soaring, and developers are placing billion-dollar bets that shattered antebellum mansions will give rise to condominium resorts.” Not until the very end of the article did the Post reveal that “low-income people, fixed-income seniors and renters in poor, low-lying areas—about 20 percent of the storm victims—are being squeezed out by demolition and redevelopment, according to such groups as Oxfam America.” The city of Biloxi, the Post mentioned in an aside, had razed African-American and Vietnamese neighborhoods in the wake of the storm—a turn of events that the Post said “fueled [the] perception” that low-income residents are being excluded from the rebuilt Gulf Coast.

Missing stories

To see what most of the media were missing, one need only turn to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which followed up its Pulitzer-winning coverage of the storm itself with a series of in-depth looks at the aftermath. Among the topics addressed in the pages of the Times-Picayune in March 2006 alone: the difficulties faced by the working poor, including those moving to New Orleans in search of rebuilding jobs, in a city so strapped for housing that hotels were charging $5 just for a hot shower (3/12/06); students at successful New Orleans high schools who found themselves abruptly relocated to failing schools in their new home cities (3/3/06); and how the vast majority of a $2 billion pool of federal welfare dollars earmarked for hurricane evacuees was going untapped because states couldn’t be bothered to fill out the paperwork (3/11/06). None of these topics were so much as touched on by other outlets.

One story that did make a brief appearance in the national media was the plight of Katrina evacuees who faced eviction as FEMA housing vouchers ran out. Each time an eviction deadline loomed, notes Jones-DeWeever of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the media responded with “occasional blips on the screen about Katrina evacuees being kicked out of hotels,” only to turn away once the immediate crisis had passed. Yet as late as May, the New Orleans Times-Picayune was reporting (5/11/06) that “7,000 of the 36,000 New Orleans area families now living in Houston might lose rental vouchers because they do not qualify for a longer-term federal assistance program with tougher eligibility requirements.”

If New Orleans’ poor were rapidly fading from public attention, poverty as a national issue got even less coverage. Mostly, media attention to poverty came in response to think tank reports, of which there were plenty in the wake of the hurricane. In October, for example, as New Orleans finally began to emerge from beneath the floodwaters, the Brookings Institution issued a report titled “Katrina’s Window: Confronting Concentrated Poverty Across America” (10/05), which pointed out that low-income families were not only concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods in New Orleans, but in many other U.S. cities, large and small. The authors noted that federal housing programs, such as the now drastically defunded HOPE VI, had been successful in the 1990s in reducing concentrations of poverty, and included a list of policy recommendations to confront this problem.

While the Brookings report did draw media attention, it wasn’t exactly what its authors had intended. Journalists skipped the report’s findings on how government policy can affect poverty, focusing instead on a Top 10 list that was included of the cities with the highest concentrations of poverty, with most of the coverage taking place in those cities: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (10/12/05), Columbus Dispatch (10/12/05), Louisville Courier-Journal (10/12/05), and Miami Herald (10/12/05). The Los Angeles Times (10/13/05) and Washington Post (11/21/05) focused not on poverty within their own cities, but on Fresno, which had topped the Brookings list; the Sacramento Bee dedicated its coverage (12/5/05) to the all-important question of how this would affect Fresno’s self-esteem, calling it “another blow to a negative image that even Fresno State’s Liberty Bowl-bound football team can’t overcome.”

Other studies received much less coverage. When the RAND Corporation think tank issued a report on how New Orleans could ultimately lose half its population, in part due to a lack of housing affordable to its former residents, USA Today and the NBC Nightly News were the only major news outlets to cover it (both 3/15/06). A report from America’s Second Harvest, a hunger relief organization, showing that visits to food banks and soup kitchens were up dramatically in recent years, prompted an article headlined “Bush’s ‘Fine’ Economy Sees Millions Go Hungry” in the Australian (2/27/06), a Rupert Murdoch-owned national paper in Australia. In the U.S. media, the America’s Second Harvest study was relegated mostly to the back pages, if it was reported at all.

Invisible once again

Another missed media opportunity came when Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act, the Orwellian-named legislation that cut funding for Medicaid and other social services. The headlines focused on the bill’s effect on the budget, but not on the poor: “Medicaid, Medicare Growth to Slow” (Washington Post, 2/9/06) and “Domestic Spending Squeezed Throughout the Government” (New York Times, 2/7/06). Yet as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out (1/26/06), the DRA not only slashed programs for the poor, it contained a provision that directly impacted poor hurricane victims: By requiring U.S. citizens seeking Medicaid to provide a birth certificate or passport or risk losing their health coverage, it risked creating even more health problems among those who’d lost key personal documents during the evacuation.

This would be especially troublesome for poor families, as 8 percent of U.S.-born adults earning under $25,000 a year say they have no passport or birth certificate, and 10 percent say they lack these documents for their children; CBPP estimated that 1.7 million adults and between 1.4 million and 2.9 million children could ultimately lose health coverage as a result of the new provisions. Only the New York Times (4/16/06) and Boston Globe (4/11/06) noted these possible ill effects of the DRA—more than two months after Bush signed it into law.

The healthcare crisis among low-income families is one of several overlooked issues Jones-DeWeever says the media should be covering if they’re serious about paying attention to poverty. “Putting off going to the doctor because you have no health insurance, you can’t afford to take a day off of work because you might lose your job—all of those things create a situation where you delay treatment, which can lead to a situation where you’re not able to catch illnesses in time to save your life,” she says. “Those are everyday circumstances that millions of people struggle with in America, that I would argue are just as life-threatening as an impending storm.”

Even when the topic was the response to natural disaster—the one lesson we were supposed to have learned from Katrina—poor families were largely invisible. When the New York Times (11/15/05) reported on other “disasters that are waiting to happen,” ranging from catastrophic floods in Sacramento to the “high threat” of volcanic eruption in Yellowstone National Park, there was much talk of the need for swift National Guard troop mobilization plans—but nothing on addressing the needs of poor residents. Likewise, in the acres of dead trees devoted to the looming threat of bird flu, hardly anyone mentioned the millions without medical coverage who would likely bear the brunt of any epidemic.

“The media rediscovered poverty for four weeks or so, and that was somewhat helpful,” says Alan Berube, co-author of the Brookings study. “But there isn’t anybody who’s decided, ‘My beat now is Fresno poverty over the next few years, or my beat is Columbus poverty.’ That didn’t really persist beyond a few weeks after the storm.”

‘Tragedy overload’

It’s an assessment that some members of the media have readily agreed with—but some seemed to pin the blame on the issue itself. In one widely reprinted column (5/7/06), Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz blamed “Katrina fatigue,” waving his arms feebly at the enormity of it all: “The normal rules of writing, photography and broadcasting are just not equal to the task,” he sighed. “How do you cover this diaspora without bumping up against the limits of journalism?” The American public had simply been saturated with “tragedy overload,” wrote Kurtz—raising the uncomfortable implication that the victims of poverty, unlike, say, the victims of September 11, are just too depressing to think about for very long.

“I think there’s a weird sort of back-of-the-mind nudging at a lot of news organizations,” says Eric Deggans, a St. Petersburg Times media critic who reviewed poverty coverage on the six-month anniversary of Katrina (3/1/06). “People realize they said a lot of stuff in the wake of Katrina that maybe they should follow up on. But here we are months later, and how much of that has translated into coverage of systemic issues? And how much of it is about ‘Here’s a thousand FEMA trailers sitting in Arkansas’?”

It doesn’t help that poverty is a complicated, multifaceted issue—”frankly, it’s a story that’s not very good on television,” notes Deggans—at a time when staffing cutbacks have left most newspapers unable to devote reporters to any but the simplest topics. “I would be amazed if anybody but the biggest papers had anybody whose beat was poverty,” says Deggans. “And for sure none of the TV networks do.”

The media’s strongest coverage of Katrina and the poor, ultimately, came where they were on the most familiar ground: FEMA’s bungled response to the emergency, culminating in widespread coverage of the “what did the president know and when did he know it?” angle when videotapes emerged revealing that Bush was warned of the likelihood of disaster well before the storm hit (MSNBC, 3/1/06; CNN, 3/2/06; USA Today, 3/1/06). Yet while the investigation of the failures of emergency response was important, it fell well short of the promise that media would finally confront the realities of poverty in the U.S.

What Slate‘s Jack Shafer had written during the height of the storm (8/31/05) remained true months later: “I don’t recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn’t risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he’d have no way to replace them. . . . What I wouldn’t pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, ‘Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?'”

“It’s always been difficult to cover poverty,” says Deggans. “And it takes a lot of hard work and innovation to create stories that will move people. But what seems obvious is that we need it. We need this kind of journalism now.”

Please also see the sidebars to this article: ‘They Didn’t Even Know This Was Mardi Gras’ and ‘Can’t We Give This a Rest?’