Found in the Flood

Found in the Flood

The most remarkable aspect of the media’s treatment of the hurricane coverage was the return of the poor, in coverage that was neither condescending nor condemnatory.


The New Orleans flood produced a dizzying array of images both striking and shocking, but what was perhaps most unusual about them was the return to American television screens and newspaper front pages of poor people in a manner that was neither condescending nor condemnatory. A tone was set by the likes of Jason DeParle in the New York Times, who began his story like this: “The white people got out. Most of them, anyway…. it was mostly black people who were left behind. Poor black people, growing more hungry, sick and frightened by the hour as faraway officials counseled patience and warned that rescues take time.” Wil Haygood in the Washington Post struck a similar tone (albeit buried on page A33): “To those who wonder why so many stayed behind when push came to water’s mighty shove here, those who were trapped have a simple explanation: Their nickels and dimes and dollar bills simply didn’t add up to stage a quick evacuation mission.”

Beyond the confines of its much beloved tourist districts, New Orleans was a far poorer, blacker and more dangerous city than most Americans imagined. According to figures posted on The Progress Report, the Lower Ninth Ward, where the flooding was worst, is more than 98 percent black, with average annual household income below $27,500, not even half the national average, with a quarter of those earning less than $10,000. As Brian Wolshon, a consultant on the state’s evacuation plan, told the Times, the city’s evacuation plan paid little attention to its “low-mobility” population–the old, the sick and the poor with no cars or other way to get out of town.

It’s impossible to tell why it was that so many TV news professionals, even the infamous media whores of cable news, caught the fever, unapologetically pointing to race and class as fundamental dimensions of the unfolding catastrophe. Perhaps they had no choice but to notice; perhaps their professional shame had grown unbearable during the years–even the post-9/11 years–of covering to death every missing little blue-eyed, blond white girl; perhaps, caught inside the tragedy, their human spirits collided with their professional selves. No matter the reason, it was a sight to behold.

In an interview with House majority leader Tom DeLay, African-American MSNBC anchor Lester Holt asked, “People are now beginning to voice what we’ve all been seeing with our own eyes–the majority of people left in New Orleans are black, they are poor, they are the underbelly of society. When you look at this, what does this say about where we are as a country and where our government is in terms of how it views the people of this country?” When DeLay responded with the usual right-wing nonsense–“We’re doing a wonderful job, and we are an incredibly compassionate people”–Holt refused to back off. “Those people at the Superdome, those people at the convention center. They’re largely black, and they’re largely poor, and they’re largely left behind. What does that say about our country right now and how it treats its citizens?” MSNBC also showed Condoleezza Rice looking no less out-to-lunch addressing the cameras than she had the day before, shopping for shoes. “You’ve spoken very eloquently around the world about growing up as an African-American in the South,” she was pointedly asked. “Are you concerned now that at least the impression is going to exist in this country and abroad that some of the relief has been affected by the race and class of the people most affected?” The Secretary of State shamed her heritage as well as her PhD with the idiotic response, “That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help, I just don’t believe it.”

While MSNBC played far above its usual batting average, it was CNN whose aggressive and impassioned reporting provided the biggest surprise and offered perhaps the finest coverage in the network’s history. Chris Lawrence described “babies 3, 4, 5 months old, living in these horrible conditions…. These people are being forced to live like animals.” Paula Zahn grilled the hapless Bush crony Michael Brown, who pretends to direct FEMA. “And finally tonight, sir,” she demanded, “you said earlier today that part of the blame for the–what you think will be an–enormous death toll in New Orleans rests with the people who did not evacuate the city, who didn’t heed the warnings. Is that fair, to blame the victims, many of whom tell us they had no way out, they had no cars of their own, and that public assistance wasn’t provided to get them out of the city?” Jack Cafferty’s commentaries were also impressive: smart, gutsy and focused on the issues of race, class, poverty, federal incompetence and the cost to the victims of having 40 percent of the National Guard away at war.

Yet in the media’s Bush propaganda wing, Fox was still Fox. Bill O’Reilly, deaf and blind to the obvious class implications of the pre-flood exodus, speculated, “A lot of the people who stayed wanted to do this destruction” and wondered why “looters” were not being shot on sight. Indeed, aside from the surprisingly passionate Shephard Smith, much of Fox’s reporting could have been datelined “Neverland.” Neil Cavuto brought in Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, to advise those who’d lost everything to “play it down and pray it up.” Fred Barnes complained that those in need had purposely bilked the taxpayers with their cavalier choice of domiciles. “They know they’re going to flood. And when these things happen, they want the taxpayers all over the country to pay, and they do.” Charles Krauthammer joshed back, “It’s a bit unseemly to talk about cutting off aid to these people while the hurricane is still roaring through Mississippi. But let’s give it a try,” proceeding to needle Barnes about his own summer house. Together with Brit Hume, the Fox pundits laughed about the rain damage to the cover of the Barnes family swimming pool.

Yes, it was a regular laugh-riot over at Fox. But for once, the rest of the media did not follow them into the sewer and instead gave their faux-news phonies a chance to see how real journalists do the job.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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