After Hurricane Katrina, close readers of the news could be forgiven for feeling a sense of schizophrenia. The devastation jolted many of TV’s talking heads out of their slick circus acts, turning them into something resembling real journalists. At the same time, many media outlets utterly failed to grasp the magnitude of the disaster, falling back on platitudinous hand wringing and racist, classist clichés.
The news media thrive on turning random, discrete events into coherent, recognizable narratives (hurricane approaches, Doppler radar spins, correspondents clutch their rain ponchos as palm trees bend in the background, storm ends, help arrives) but the “normal hurricane story” took a terrible turn for the worse.
With the usual narrative crushed under the inescapable reality of sheer human misery in the Crescent City, some media personalities rose to the occasion, if only for a moment. All Things Considered host Robert Siegel sounded like Amy Goodman when he forced Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to admit that he didn’t even know there were thousands of refugees stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center.
Anderson Cooper interrupted pontificating Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu on CNN, saying, “Senator, I’m sorry. For the last four days, I have been seeing dead bodies here in the streets of Mississippi and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other – I have to tell you, there are people here who are very upset and angry.” The fact that such examples of journalistic spine are even noteworthy says much about the debased state of the news.
Then, less than two weeks after the storm hit, a crackdown on media coverage began. Inside the Houston Astrodome, where information about conditions was hard to come by, widely supported efforts to set up a lowpower FM station were blocked by local bureaucrats. As criticism mounted of the government’s emergency response system, FEMA pressured the media not to show dead bodies in the region. Numerous reports of police violence against “unembedded” journalists in New Orleans emerged, making this story resemble the other Gulf war.
The fact that a few individual anchors asked a few minutes’ worth of tough questions hardly counterbalances the utterly racist tenor of the initial coverage of Hurricane Katrina, especially in New York City’s tabloid press.
Much of the written coverage of Katrina prior to Sept. 1 had little to say about the race or class of the victims. By the morning of Sept. 2, however, media outlets were talking about it – all in the context of looting. On the cover of the New York Daily News, a sea of black hands could be seen assaulting the body of an injured white man with the headline “ANARCHY,” while the New York Post presented readers with the picture of heavily armed white troops aiming their weapons at a crowd of African-Americans. When the government announced a shootto-kill policy on looters, most of the media not only didn’t question it, but backed the government’s position that looting posed one of the biggest threats.
Most likely, the press will soon start to treat the New Orleans disaster as just another story, turning what has been a massive failure of the U.S. capitalist system into a partisan political dispute, and once again ignoring the deep inequities that made the debacle inevitable.