Aug 1 2006

Sidebar: ‘They Didn’t Even Know This Was Mardi Gras’

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

CNN’s Anderson Cooper was the first journalist to be made into a star by Hurricane Katrina: The image of Gloria Vanderbilt’s son leaning into gale-force winds had barely faded from the nation’s screens when he was elevated to replace Aaron Brown as CNN’s top news anchor (11/8/05). And Cooper returned the favor, spending as much time revisiting the Gulf Coast and reporting on Katrina’s aftermath as any other national journalist.

From the start, Cooper staked his ground as a critic of the dysfunctional bureaucratic response to the disaster. As the first images from the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center came in (9/1/05), Cooper loudly declared conditions in New Orleans “an outrage,” and berated U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D.-La.) for publicly thanking her fellow politicians when “there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours.”

Alone among the national media, Anderson Cooper 360° revisited the Gulf Coast numerous times in the months that followed, with its star generally fuming at the slow pace of rebuilding. In particular, Cooper returned again and again to the matter of trailers that FEMA had promised to house displaced Gulf Coast residents, dedicating most installments of his recurring segment “Keeping Them Honest” to, as 360° correspondent Susan Roesgen put it during one such report (3/22/06), the “nearly 11,000 brand new mobile homes, sitting empty in an Arkansas cow pasture 400 miles from the Gulf Coast.”

Yet Cooper was never part of the groundswell urging a longer look at poverty in general, and in fact downplayed the role played by class and race when it was raised. When Rev. Jesse Jackson accused the U.S. of having “an amazing tolerance for black pain” (9/2/05), Cooper retorted: “Reverend Jackson, you call that indifference. Others might just call that incompetence, and we’ve seen incompetence in plenty of places.” And when the question of whether to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward was raised, Cooper implied (11/28/05) that the determining factor should be not its elevation but its tax base, declaring that “the economic contribution of a neighborhood has to be weighed against the cost of protecting it.”

While Cooper deserves credit for keeping FEMA’s feet to the fire on the trailer issue, on other topics he exhibited the same disdain for follow-up stories that was endemic to post-Katrina coverage. On the six-month anniversary of the hurricane (2/27/06), for example, Cooper spoke to the lawyer for a group of displaced residents who had been living on a cruise ship docked in St. Bernard Parish and were facing imminent eviction once FEMA cut off their housing funds. (Perhaps searching for an appropriate example of pathos, Cooper gasped: “And you said that they didn’t even know this was Mardi Gras weekend?”)

In signing off, Cooper promised, “We’ll be following that story.” Yet on March 3, when a federal judge okayed the eviction of cruise ship residents, the only mention on 360° came when CNN anchor Erica Hill gave a two-sentence summary of the ruling during a newsbreak; Cooper never mentioned the story again.