Aug 1 2006

Sidebar: ‘Can’t We Give This a Rest?’

[Note: this piece is a sidebar to Katrina’s Vanishing Victims]

Of the broadcast network news anchors, NBC’s Brian Williams distinguished himself for taking the plight of New Orleans’ poor residents to heart. Shortly after NBC’s Bob Faw (9/1/05) declared that “disasters do not treat everyone alike” and called Katrina “a catastrophe shedding light on class, on race and misery,” Williams told St. Petersburg Times media columnist Eric Deggans (3/1/06), “If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we’ve failed.”

If Williams didn’t quite live up to his bold promise, his network did devote considerable attention to race and class issues in the wake of the hurricane, highlighted by a week-long series in December called “After the Storm: The Long Road Back” (12/20/05), that included a look at racial discrimination faced by evacuees seeking housing. NBC was especially attentive to the effects of government funding cuts, illustrating a story on congressional cuts to Medicaid and food stamps with images of poor hurricane victims trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center. When George W. Bush rejected a $30 billion homeowner buyout package in January, favoring a plan to bail out only homeowners who lived outside of the floodplain, NBC (1/25/06) interviewed Walter Isaacson of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, who noted the Bush plan “leaves out people who lived in the lower grounds, people who are African-Americans, people who are poor.”

By calling attention to the plight of the poor when its competitors were not, however, NBC evidently ran into the dangers of breaking with the pack in terms of what news is considered worthy of coverage. One month after the “Long Road Back” series concluded (1/25/06), Williams cited the “increasing number” of e-mails he’d received asking why the series was even necessary: “A viewer from Houston writes, ‘I was very saddened by the damage caused by the hurricane and certainly support the rebuilding of New Orleans. But can’t we give this a rest?’ Another viewer writes, ‘I’m getting just plain sick and tired of hearing the constant drumbeat about New Orleans.’ Still another is even more direct. ‘Enough. We’re sick and tired of “The Long Road Back.’”

Williams replied that Katrina was different from other disasters:

It displaced 2 million Americans. It destroyed 350,000 homes. Not all the bodies have been found yet. It exposed cracks in our society. It has us talking about race and class and money and relief. . . . Tonight, one of the great American cities is partially in ruins, and many of our fellow citizens are hurting and have nothing left. In some places, nothing’s been done yet. And so, while we are reading all the mail, and we enjoy it, we also have a job to do, and we have a big story to cover. And along with the news around the nation and the world each day, we intend to keep covering it.

While this may have sounded like a declaration that they would keep bucking trends, it turned out to be more of an excuse for why they wouldn’t. Katrina’s impoverished victims faded rapidly away from NBC’s coverage thereafter. By the six-month anniversary in February, NBChad joined its rivals in limiting coverage to a brief look at the struggles of putting on Mardi Gras in a depopulated city, then moving on before anyone could accuse them of peering too deeply into matters of race or class.