Four years on, media mostly neglect an ongoing disaster
August 29 marked the fourth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The devastation wrought by both the hurricane itself and the government’s inept response prompted remarkably critical corporate media coverage that promised to fight for Katrina survivors and change the way we talk about poverty and race (FAIR Media Advisory, 9/9/05).
As NBC‘s Brian Williams told the St. Petersburg Times (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.” But four years later, corporate media outlets seem to have largely forgotten about Katrina and its survivors, let alone the conversations about race and poverty that were supposed to accompany it.
The Institute for Southern Studies issued a report (8-9/09) in which more than 50 Gulf Coast community leaders graded officials on their response to the ongoing disaster; the Obama administration received a D+, while Congress received a D. (George W. Bush received a D- in an earlier survey.) One million people are still displaced, rebuilding continues at a glacial pace, and the levees being rebuilt have been judged insufficient to protect New Orleans from another Katrina-level flood.
But amazingly, according to a search of the Nexis news media database, neither the Washington Post nor the L.A. Times ran a single piece on Katrina in the past week. ABC and Fox News didn’t mention the hurricane or its aftermath once.
CBS ran two segments (8/28/09, 8/31/09), as well as a brief headline (8/29/09) on Barack Obama’s weekly radio address that discussed post-Katrina reconstruction. The one mention on MSNBC came on the Ed Show (8/27/09), when host Ed Schultz singled out right-wing talk radio host Neal Boortz for his hateful remarks about displaced Katrina survivors, such as his recent commentary: “Obama wants to rebuild New Orleans? Why? ‘Build it and they will come’? ‘They’? The debris that Katrina chased out?”
NBC ran four segments, all of which put a remarkably upbeat spin on the situation. In one piece (8/30/09), reporter Ron Mott declared that while a third of the homes in New Orleans are still vacant or abandoned, “positive news abounds. The population is steadily climbing as are test scores in the overhauled public school system.” Another segment (8/30/09) reported that “the city and its most famous cultural treasure are now well on the mend,” while a day earlier (8/29/09), Saturday Today anchor Lester Holt introduced a short piece on “encouraging new signs for the city,” in which reporter Mott announced that “much has improved and a lot of people are working.”
The New York Times published a few pieces on Katrina, including an op-ed chart (8/28/09) and a report (8/30/09) on Obama’s speech. The cover story of its weekend magazine (8/30/09) was a long piece by Sheri Fink, of the nonprofit journalism outfit ProPublica, on the “deadly choices” at a New Orleans hospital following the hurricane–one of the few anniversary pieces to touch even obliquely on issues of racism, quoting one doctor who helped euthanize patients as saying he was worried about “the animals” outside–that “these crazy black people who think they’ve been oppressed for all these years by white people” might start “raping…or, you know, dismembering” people.
The Times also ran an article (8/31/09) that talked about how the goal in New Orleans isn’t to “revert to the city that existed here before the flood,” but instead focusing on “revitalization.” (See Extra!, 7-8/07.) Further down it mentioned that “fundamental problems” still exist, like high unemployment, and some neighborhoods that “seem barely touched” since four years ago. Race, though, wasn’t mentioned a single time.
The day before the Katrina anniversary, the Times did manage to run a front-page piece on the abysmal state of flood recovery–in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (8/28/09): “Flooded Iowa City Rebuilding and Feeling Just a Bit Ignored.” As reporter Susan Saulny put it, “The outpouring of attention toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, ratcheting up again now as the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, has not been seen here. In fact, the people of Cedar Rapids are feeling neglected.”
As Saulny quickly made clear, her premise itself is flawed: “To be sure, Hurricane Katrina’s huge reach and a botched emergency response devastated a far greater swath of the country than did the flooding in the Midwest, and no one here is trying to make tit-for-tat disaster comparisons. No lives were lost in the flooding in Cedar Rapids, and the government’s initial response to the crisis was generally considered a success.” And yet, the New York Times saw fit to run a front-page piece on Cedar Rapids and not Katrina. That “outpouring of attention” for Katrina victims Saulny described as attending the fourth anniversary certainly wasn’t to be found in the Times.
CNN, whose relatively heavy Katrina coverage helped boost host Anderson Cooper’s profile at the network (Extra!, 7-8/06), dedicated much more time than any other major outlet to the anniversary, with a few dozen segments over the days before and after August 29. But while some of the coverage dug deeper than other outlets, it betrayed CNN‘s lack of consistent interest in the issue. In one report, for example, correspondent Gary Tuchman “tracked down” a story on vigilante justice in which a white militia formed in a largely white neighborhood and shot black passersby in the chaotic days following the hurricane. It’s a critical story–so why did CNN only come to it nearly nine months after ProPublica journalist A.C. Thompson (interviewed briefly in CNN‘s piece) broke the news in a lengthy investigative report published in the Nation (1/05/09)? It would seem the Katrina anniversaries are the only time such stories are considered newsworthy.
The media’s neglect of the Gulf Coast is not a new thing; Extra! was writing about it as far back as July/August 2006. According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors TV news, there were 367 minutes on Katrina’s aftermath that year (TVNewser, 1/3/07). In 2007 it was down to 116 minutes, while in 2008 it was not among the top 20 stories of the year. In the first seven months of 2009, Tyndall finds, there were just six Katrina-related stories (TyndallReport.com).
There are plenty of ongoing stories to be told today. The Institute for Southern Studies report also highlighted some startling statistics: In addition to the estimated 1 million people still displaced by Katrina, rents in the New Orleans area have increased by 40 percent since the hurricane, and an estimated 11,000 people are currently homeless there. The report also reveals striking racial disparities in the impacts: Less than 49 percent of households in the largely African-American and working class Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans are actively receiving mail today (compared to 76 percent city-wide), for example, and black children’s enrollment in public and private schools dropped from 49 percent of all students to 43 percent.
Independent journalists and outlets, such as Jordan Flaherty (CounterPunch, 8/26/09) and Democracy Now! (8/31/09), as well as local journalists like the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s Jarvis DeBerry (e.g., 8/21/09), have been documenting such ongoing disparities and unfulfilled promises. It’s work the major outlets can and should be doing–and it doesn’t even have to wait until the next anniversary.