Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Katrina's Vanishing Victims

Extra! July/August 2006

By Neil deMause

It happened on the afternoon of September 1, three days after Hurricane Katrina pushed a wall of water onto the city of New Orleans. CNN had been airing just-received videos of tens of thousands of people trapped at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, without food or supplies-scenes of elderly residents left to die by the roadside, of children chanting, "We want help!" Anchor Wolf Blitzer turned to CNN commentator Jack Cafferty to ask how it could be that, with all the advance warnings of disaster bearing down on the city, so many people had still been left in harm's way.

Cafferty's reply was, to say the least, unexpected, especially coming from a man who'd once insisted (3/31/04) that the word "liberal" was synonymous with "communist." "There is a great big elephant in the living room that the media seems content to ignore," Cafferty told Blitzer:

Slate.com's Jack Shafer wrote today in his column that television coverage has shied away from talking about race and class. . . . Almost every person we've seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, to the looters, to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor. Many of them didn't follow the evacuation orders because they didn't have the means to get out of town. They just couldn't do it. A lot of them are sick. A lot of them don't have cars. A lot of them just didn't have the means to leave the Big Easy. And they're still there.

It was an observation that was soon everywhere in the U.S. media (Extra! Update, 10/05). Newsweek (9/19/05) put the face of a crying African-American child on its cover, alongside the headline "Poverty, Race and Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame." Inside, in an article titled "The Other America" (echoing the book by Michael Harrington that launched the "rediscovery" of U.S. poverty in the 1960s), senior editor Jonathan Alter noted, "After a decade of improvement in the 1990s, poverty in America is actually getting worse," and argued that "it takes a catastrophe like Katrina to strip away the old evasions, hypocrisies and not-so-benign neglect."

"All of a sudden, people are saying, 'Do we really have that level of poverty here?'" George Mason University professor Toni-Michelle Travis told Long Island's Newsday (10/2/05). "Are there people really trying to hold families together with substandard education, living in substandard housing and with no financial resources to fall back on?" Even George W. Bush decried the "deep, persistent poverty" that "all of us saw on television," declaring, "We have a duty to confront poverty with bold action."

On CNN's Reliable Sources (9/18/05), Newsweek contributing editor Ellis Cose was asked how much longer "the underclass" would remain in the news after Katrina. He replied: "I think it's going to be a story for a long time, and a long time meaning at least six months or more. And I think these issues are going to be finally examined."

Broken promises

Contrary to Cose's predictions, "a long time" turned out to be a matter of weeks. An Extra! analysis of media coverage since Katrina—of the hurricane's aftermath along the Gulf Coast and of poverty issues in general—found that with few exceptions, the media's rediscovery of impoverished Americans lasted barely a month. While occasional individual journalists did follow up on how New Orleans' poorest residents were faring in the months after the hurricane (see sidebars ‘They Didn’t Even Know This Was Mardi Gras’ and ‘Can’t We Give This a Rest?’), these seldom went beyond tales of individual tragedy, examining neither the systemic causes of their destitution, nor what could be done to alleviate their woes.

The irony is that coverage of poverty has dropped even as poverty itself has been on the rise. "Not only are more people poor, people are living in deeper poverty than they have in decades," notes Avis Jones-DeWeever of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, who has studied Katrina and its aftermath.

I think most people really have no clue what it's like to be poor in America. When people saw what it meant not to have a car, and not to have enough money to pay for a ticket to get you and your family out of harm's way when this huge storm is coming, it just made real for some people, in a way that they've never conceptualized, what are the everyday implications of poverty.

It was to be a short-lived lesson. A simple Nexis search of major news outlets for stories mentioning the word "poverty" shows a spike in September 2005, followed by a drop back thereafter. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall found that for the eight months following Katrina, network newscasts spent an average of four seconds per night on poverty issues—up from an average of two-and-a-half seconds in the years before Katrina, but still only half the time devoted to the doings of the stock market.

The first signs that the media's eye had begun to wander came when two more hurricanes—Rita and Wilma—socked the Gulf Coast and Florida, respectively, in the two months following Katrina's landfall. When Hurricane Wilma rampaged through South Florida in late October, local papers reported on the dire effects on South Florida's poor. "People who are already poor, who are already living on the edge, are facing two disasters: the storm and the aftermath," University of Delaware disaster researcher Benigno Aguirre told the Miami Herald (10/30/05). The paper reported that many low-income residents, unable to afford soaring gas prices, had been left unable to get to work, or even to reach relief distribution sites to restock refrigerators filled with spoiled food after days without power.

For news outlets outside the state, though, these people and their troubles remained largely invisible. In the New York Times, the poor were largely relegated to footnotes in coverage of the hurricanes' aftermath, including such references as an item (10/25/05) blaming low-income residents in Cancun, Mexico for looting after Wilma, threatening "residents and tourists."

Return to Mardi Gras

Virtually every major news outlet in the nation sent reporters to cover the six-month anniversary of Katrina, especially since it fortuitously coincided with New Orleans' first post-hurricane Mardi Gras. (More than 1,000 outlets requested media credentials to cover Mardi Gras, according to the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education—3/1/06.) CBS's Kelly Cobiella reported that "even in the French Quarter, the ghost of Katrina haunts party-goers," though the Chicago Tribune's headline (3/1/06) was "Fat Tuesday Brings the Joy Back." The New York Times' compromise (3/1/06): "Amid Smiles and Sighs, a Leaner Fat Tuesday Returns to New Orleans."

But the Gulf Coast's poor had by then drifted out of the spotlight; hardly any journalists ventured beyond the familiar streets of the French Quarter, let alone traveled to Houston or Atlanta to visit with the diaspora of several hundred thousand poor New Orleaners who were still unable to return.

One New York Times piece (3/1/06) focused on nearly 2,000 Louisianans who remained missing, but glossed over economic reasons why these people might have lost contact with their loved ones, describing them only as "adrift in America, having failed, for a variety of reasons, to remain in touch with their own families." Echoing CBS's Harry Smith's declaration (Early Show, 2/28/06) that Katrina victims were "really drowning in red tape now vs. the floodwaters they faced six months ago," the Los Angeles Times' front-page look at the displaced (2/26/06) focused on homeowners facing "red tape" and "tightfisted insurance companies." The L.A. Times article mentioned only at the very end that "there have been no provisions incorporated in the city's rebuilding plans for renters, an omission that disproportionately affects black residents and poorer areas."

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