‘Corporate Media Really Want to Be Able to Say the Story Is Over’ – CounterSpin interviews with Rosa Brooks, Colette Pichon Battle, A.C. Thompson and Jordan Flaherty on Katrina's 10 years of media neglect


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CounterSpin looked back at coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath for its August 21 episode. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Katrina flooding (photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

New Orleans, August 30, 2005 (photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

Janine Jackson: It will soon be the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a devastating event that killed at least 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast region and displaced as many as a half million, followed by rebuilding efforts that were bungling and divisive.

Katrina was a major story for US media; reporters on the scene seemed viscerally affected and conveyed a sense of urgency and outrage at the lumbering federal response. And NBC‘s Brian Williams famously announced, “If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we’ve failed.”

We didn’t really have that national discussion, on race or class, anyway, in a sustained way. Some media did better at acknowledging the impact of racism and poverty that meant the disaster hit some people much harder than others, but the serious work you’d hope would follow such recognition for the most part failed to materialize.

Hurricane Katrina is still affecting communities on the Gulf Coast, and some impacts are only really coming to light now. An April story in The Atlantic addressed the lasting trauma for children forced to evacuate their homes and move to new communities where they were unwelcome. More than one-third of displaced children fell at least a year behind in school.

As we look to see how media will talk about the ongoing effects of Katrina and the aftermath, we’re going to first go back. CounterSpin has discussed various aspects of the story over the years, and we’re going to bring you some of those stories today.

“Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media” was a USA Today headline in 2005. That was sort of a theme in press reports, which saw signs of critical and independent thinking on the part of reporters covering the hurricane and its aftermath. Others were less sanguine, wondered why it took a disaster of this scale to shake reporters into acting like reporters, and how long it would last. In early September 2005, CounterSpin spoke with writer Rosa Brooks, also a professor at University of Virginia School of Law, about mainstream media’s startling discovery that there are poor people in America.

Rosa Brooks: Two things strike me as different. The first is, as you’ve already said, that we are getting a lot more coverage; it’s a quantity difference. We’re suddenly seeing a ton of stories all over the place–network news, in print media outlets, on blogs–about poverty, about the intersection of race and poverty, about the ways in which race and poverty and social policies have left people uniquely vulnerable in times of disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. So that’s one big difference.

The other difference really has to do not so much with the quantity of the stories, but with the impassioned quality to many of them. I think its accurate to say that there’s a micro-crusade, which could turn into a real journalistic crusade in the best tradition of old-fashioned muckraking journalism, to say, “We are going to bring to your attention, viewers, readers, something that you may not have known about, might not even have wanted to know about, that maybe a lot of people don’t want you to be thinking about, but we are going to bring it to your attention because its important.”

Rosa Brooks

Rosa Brooks

I do think there’s an irony here, which is that, as I commented in the column, we have 37 million Americans who live in poverty in this country. And that’s even using the federal government’s definition, which many critics think is unduly stingy, and argue in fact that there are more people living, functionally speaking, in poverty in America than 37 million. These poor people have been here all the time; they didn’t just pop up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It’s just that the media has suddenly noticed them and is acting as though they have…. That’s not fair to say, “the media” are acting as though they’ve discovered poverty; not everyone is doing that. But there is certainly–the tone of some of the coverage is rather astonished, “Who would have thought there was poverty in America,” when of course the evidence has been there all along.

And I think that there’s a simple reason for this sudden journalistic discovery of poverty in America, and that is that we had journalists going down to New Orleans who suddenly found themselves not that much better off, for a few days at least, than the poor. No electricity, no running water, watching people suffering all around them, trying to get help but discovering that they too seemed strangely powerless to get help…. That things just weren’t working. They were witnessing the abandonment of a large group of Americans, and they saw that suffering all around them, and that normally doesn’t happen.

It’s critically important for the press to not let themselves get diverted or distracted, to hold onto that sense of outrage, to that sense of shock, because that does translate to viewers and to readers. It’s very powerful to see something we rarely see, which is a journalist saying, “Look, here’s the real no-spin zone, I was there, I saw it and I care about this and I have to tell you this. I’m speaking as a person, not as an employee of the network here, I’m telling you something as a human being.”

That’s very powerful, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing that, even on the more traditionally conservative stations like on Fox, that some of this is really breaking through, and that it’s started a debate in a group where, because of media fragmentation, you might not have seen that kind of debate before. That’s the kind of thing that could lead both to potentially, to electoral change, but more to the point in a way, to a real way change in how Americans think about a very wide range of issues, from class and race to environmental sustainability, etc.

JJ: We asked Brooks as a law professor about the use of the term “refugees” to describe the people who had been displaced.

RB: Legally, no, it’s not an accurate term, but I’m not sure that that matters very much. Refugee, legally speaking, is defined by the Convention on Refugees. It has to do with two things; one, being displaced from your own country, so anybody who is inside their own country is not a refugee, period. And second, it’s very technical meaning is that you are fleeing persecution.

That said, it is used all the time, internationally as well as in the US, to refer to any person that has been displaced, whether inside or outside of their country, and to refer to people who are displaced for reasons of natural disasters or wars as well as actual persecution. I don’t think it’s, in that sense, an inaccurate or inherently disparaging term.

That said, I think that some of the debate about the use of the term stems from an anxiety on the part of some observers about the term “refugee,” which does summon up images of Third World, which in turn summons up some images of people who don’t look like “us,” e.g., people with darker skin colors. You risk somehow making this, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, look like not a problem that we all of society have to face, but just a problem for black people, which can somehow be attributed to their race, and their failure to cope with this disaster. So I think that’s the anxiety.

JJ: We now know, of course, that most media were quite happy to race back to their comfort zones, and by 2008, a narrative had emerged that the crisis was in the past. Those in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast didn’t have the option of pretending all was well. In August 2008, CounterSpin picked up the still-ongoing aftermath story with Colette Pichon Battle, a community attorney and president of the board of the group Moving Forward Gulf Coast Inc. We asked her, first, about housing and the federal rebuilding program known as Road Home.

Colette Pichon Battle

Colette Pichon Battle

Colette Pichon Battle: The housing story here in the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans in particular, is very complicated. Usually when folks talk about housing, they are either talking about public housing, or they’re talking about homeowners, who have gotten some of the money from Road Home but are still facing tremendous odds with regards to legal paperwork and sort of road blocks that have kept people from actually getting any type of resources to recover.

There are currently 10,000 FEMA trailers still left in the region, and folks who are still living in those toxic trailers, if you remember, are struggling to get any type of resources to rebuild their own homes.

It’s important to remember that the housing situation in the Gulf Coast, specifically in Louisiana, is different if you are a homeowner or if you are a renter. The only way you could receive any resources from the CDBG block grants that came down was if you were a homeowner. Folks who lived in public housing or were renters, they actually have received zero federal dollars.

There was actually no plan to get any of those people back, to get any of their items restored, or to get their lives back to a place where they could start to build again. Only the homeowners had access to things like FEMA trailers on the property that they owned, or that their family owned, and the state recovery dollars that came down. So you really have a situation where the most vulnerable populations are not able to restore their lives here.

The color line here is saddening at its starkness. The number of people who own their homes in this area were predominantly white folks or middle-class African-Americans who have been here for a while. Even in the Lower Ninth Ward, which by the way had one of the highest rates of homeownership, a lot of those houses had absolutely no way to recover, so many of them were bulldozed and demolished. But the recovery, the way things are slated, it literally looks like black and white. And folks don’t like to talk about that, because once you start talking about black and white, then you really have to start addressing the systemic poverty issues that have been here facing this region for a very long time.

The rebuilding in some of these neighborhoods, when you go Uptown, when you go to certain places in Mid-City–these are places where African-Americans are not the majority–it looks like there is a full recovery, and you can really claim a level of success. But when you go to historic black neighborhoods like Pontchartrain Park, near Southern University at New Orleans, and when you go to the Lower Ninth Ward and even New Orleans East, you see that there is a significant number of houses that have been gutted, but there’s no one there. There are for sale signs everywhere, and this is nothing to do with the credit crunch or the housing boom. These are people who are not able to come back to their homes for any number of reasons, including the networks that sustain those communities.

I think one of the most pressing stories here circles around healthcare and healthcare issues, and I mean that in the broadest sense. There are of course physical health issues that people need to have resources for, but once you go through a situation like Katrina, you realize that there are new populations of people who need mental health access, and they really don’t have a widespread system to help. You have children that missed two years of school, some were forced to miss a year of school, and so they’re forced to deal with PTSD and other mental health issues on their own, and they’re getting into the criminal justice system, because no one really knows how to take a look at these things in the context in which they grew and really say, “How do we fix these problems? How do we give attention to the people who need the most help?”

The saddest part of it is that there is a fight going on right now with the hospital that would normally serve the underinsured and the uninsured, which is Charity Hospital. The big fight now is with the LSU Health System: Can you build another hospital that’s bigger and better? And the answer is yes, but you have to close this one down for right now. So a lot of people who don’t have insurance, who are underinsured, who absolutely have no way to access healthcare–not mental healthcare, not physical healthcare–without leaving, going some 90 miles, sometimes even further away, just to be treated.

JJ: We asked Pichon Battle about coverage of the regions that were affected by the hurricane that were outside of New Orleans, other places along the Gulf Coast.

CPB: It would be really interesting for folks to really shift their gaze, not just on New Orleans, but to widen it a little bit to include the Gulf Coast, and really see what people are claiming to be the successes of recovery. I’ll just give you an example of Mississippi: You know, Governor Barbour of Mississippi claimed success in the recovery, but what he wasn’t telling folks was that there was a whole section of mostly African-American low-income people who were left out of those state recovery dollars because they didn’t qualify. In Mississippi, if you lived in a flood zone and you didn’t have insurance, the governor decided that you were not eligible for any state recovery dollars.

And so you have folks who inherited their homes from two and three generations, that did not have a mortgage so they didn’t hold insurance; those people were actually not able to enlist in the state recovery program until much later, when many had to decide that they just couldn’t hold on. So you have significant amounts of people not able to return in the state of Mississippi.

In the state of Alabama, you have folks like Senator Shelby refusing to sign on anything that grants housing for low-income folks and the sort of public housing phase of Senate Bill 1668. David Bitter of Louisiana–these are the people who stopped those bills from going through, because they were claiming a success in the recovery, and they were also saying that any aid coming down from the federal government should not be there to assist people who live in public housing or who have housing needs. It’s been a real mess down here, but when you look at the national headlines, you look at the reporting, the governor’s office of any of these states gets to sort of claim success and people takes those claims to be true, but that’s actually not the case here.

I think it would be really interesting for the media to focus on some of the struggles that community-based organizations are having in the recovery. As you have governors and senators claiming success, what they’re not telling you is the little bit of success that has occurred here would not have occurred here without the community-based organizations and the churches who have been working down here filling the gaps and the government responsibility to the people of the Gulf Coast.

I would say to the media, take a look at some of the struggles these organizations are facing; they are having to learn how to do government-level work and they are learning how to be responsible for the people for government funding, because the government is just not doing it. The government is so powerful down here that folks really have to come together and just try to help their own communities with the little resources that they have. I think what we need here is for the federal government to appoint some resources to go directly to these community-based organizations doing all the work anyway.

JJ: By 2009, many media weren’t even noting the anniversary of hurricane Katrina, but there were still stories to be told. Listeners will remember all the rumors about violence in the wake of the storm. Violence, we were told, was perpetrated by black people. The vast majority of the rumors were just that, but one story about violence, though it was true, didn’t get that sort of circulation. In January 2009, The Nation magazine ran a report by Pro Publica reporter A.C. Thompson, called “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” about vigilante attacks in Algiers Point on the lower Mississippi River. We asked Thompson how he came to the story.

A.C. Thompson (photo: Lars Klove)

A.C. Thompson

A.C. Thompson: I had been tipped by a friend of mine, who’s an author and historian, that there was this series of crimes against African-American men in a neighborhood called Algiers Point right after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and she said, “Look, this isn’t the kind of thing I know what to do with, but you’re an investigative reporter and you should check it out.”

So what I wanted to do was move from the anecdotes that the author gave me and really try to figure out if there was any truth to them, and figure out what happened, to reconstruct the two weeks after the storm. And what I found through interviewing people, through a lawsuit that gave us 800 autopsy reports from the Katrina time period, from talking to people who were involved in this vigilante activity and people who were victims of it, is that there were indeed a string of shootings; the people who did the shootings were all white males and the victims were all African-American, and by eyewitness statements, it looks like 11 people were shot during that time period.

JJ: The vigilantes, Thompson told us, were actually forthcoming about their actions, but law enforcement was a little tougher.

ACT: That was what was amazing is that the vigilantes were totally comfortable talking, and they said “Look, we were involved in these shootings, these things occurred, this is why they occurred,” and they were very upfront. And their position was that they were defending their neighborhood: “We were worried about looters and we did what we had to do.”

The authorities, however, really didn’t want to address any of this. So the Coroner’s office, the Orleans Parish coroner, when I called him and said, “Look, I want to know how many autopsies you did of people who were gunshot victims in the month after the storm,” they refused to come up with a number, they refused to explain anything that happened during that time period. So when I said, “Well, Louisiana state law says you have to give me these autopsy reports,” they said, “Well, that’s fine, we don’t follow the state law.”

So finally when we went to court and sued them, and a judge forced the coroner’s office to turn over these documents, we got a lot of them, but we also learned that the autopsies for that time period, that the paper trail is very incomplete. And the coroner said, “Yeah, there was a lot of people that we didn’t autopsy, there were autopsies that we lost.” So getting a complete picture of how people died during that time period is next to impossible. But what we did find was that there were shootings that occurred, and suspicious cases that occurred, including one man who was burned up, that there seemed to be no law enforcement follow-up on whatsoever.

JJ: We asked him about media pick-up of his story, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War.”

ACT: The mainstream media, aside from NPR, hasn’t been that interested in this story. However, the blogosphere, the web, community radio, satellite radio, has been very, very interested in this story. So it’s been amazing to me to see it zoom around the internet, get reposted in dozens and dozens and dozens of places, and generate these huge online discussions in all kinds of forums. And to me, that’s really encouraging, that a story can get wide circulation just on the merits, without any assist from the mainstream media, is pretty cool to me.

JJ: By September 2009, the media had recast the story of Katrina, when they mentioned it, as one of successful revitalization. That image could only be sold, though, by a failure to look closely at what was happening. Reporter Jordan Flaherty was one of the ones to stay on the story after others had packed up and gone home. We asked him about media coverage, and what happened to that national conversation we were going to have.

Jordan Flaherty (image: Al Jazeera)

Jordan Flaherty (image: Al Jazeera)

Jordan Flaherty: There was this promise from the corporate media that they would use this as an opportunity, four years ago, to really have this dialogue on race in this country, the legacy of racism, white supremacy, slavery, and how it is a current reality. And I think in most measures the discussion still has not happened. I think specifically in New Orleans, everyone loves a happy ending, and I think the corporate media really wants to be able to say the story is over, the city is rebuilt, there are now successes, we had a quick stumble at the beginning and now we have moved on and some things are OK.

The reality is that it’s not true; we still have, depending on your measurement, around 40 percent of the city still not back, at least 100,000 something, as many as a possible 200,000 people, out of a former population of 500,000, that still have not returned, and that is a huge tragic loss, and if you look at the studies that have been done, that is overwhelming African-American folks, it’s overwhelming poor folks. And in the study, when people have been talked to, they overwhelming want to come back, but they have not been able to come back, because of the housing situation, education, healthcare, all these systems which still have not recovered.

I think what we’ve seen New Orleans turn into is a bit of survival of the fittest situation. In the media days after Katrina, a lot of these neo-liberals like Milton Friedman, and politicians like Richard Baker, were celebrating this blank slate that they had to remake the city. A lot of the powerful voices in the city, like Jimmy Rice, were quoted as saying, “We are turning a page for the city,” that they were going to rebuild it as something new.

So when you see these celebrations in the media, for example, the education system: The education system before Katrina had many problems, and also had some really great schools. Now it also has many great problems and many great schools, and I think what you have now is if you, as a student, have a parent that can advocate for you, find the best school in the city, which is now mostly charter public system, you can get a really great education in New Orleans. But for those that don’t have someone to advocate for them, it’s a lot harder.

The same in housing: There is some great housing in the city, but the prices have gone up almost twice as much, more than 5,000 units of public housing — virtually all the public housing in the city — has been demolished, Section 8 is still mostly unavailable for most folks. So it’s possible to have a great life in the city, but I think for those that are in most need of help, that help is the least available.

The same with healthcare: There’s new community clinics that do great work, but if you don’t know about this clinic, or you don’t have one near you, the main system that used to serve you, the Charity Hospital System, still remains closed. So for some people it’s gotten a lot better, but a lot of people have been left out, and those are the voices that have been excluded from the corporate media coverage as well.

As I mentioned, in addition to the 5,000 units of public housing torn down, we still have more than 65,000 empty, abandoned, flood-damaged residential addresses in the city. That’s about a third of the housing in the city; it’s more than anywhere else in the country. Detroit is a close No. 2, but of course that happened over decades, and here in New Orleans it happened overnight.

So massive amounts of empty housing, unusable housing, rents skyrocketing, as also mentioned, and a lot of people, people who used to be renters, who had jobs and were doing OK in the city, now are homeless. There’s an estimated 11,000 folks homeless, and that’s by a conservative estimate. Aand that’s nearly about 5 percent of the current population of the city. If you were talking about, for example, 5 percent of New York City being homeless, that would be about 500,000 homeless folks.

So it’s a large percentage of our population is homeless, and a lot of them are living in these empty, abandoned houses, struggling to make a life, and of course it’s incredibly unhealthy. Local organization here, Community for the Homeless, has gotten some funding from the federal government, housing vouchers for people, and they put people on a list; at the top of the list are the people most endangered of dying if they don’t get housing. Sixteen people have already died from the top of that list, and still the housing vouchers have not come through, so it’s a massive housing crisis, and people just really need a minimum level of a safety net, and that has just not come through for the people of New Orleans.

JJ: We asked Flaherty about the media’s lack of attention to particularly the elements of racism that were evident in this whole process.

JF: I do think it’s important to talk about race, distinct from class in this situation. For example, if you look at the success story of the school system, the so-called success story that is talked about by a lot of the media, what isn’t mentioned is that the entire staff of the school system was fired just days after the storm, and was almost certainly a majority African-American, and their union was one of the largest sources of black, middle-class political power in the city. That is an example of where this displacement has really just disproportionately affected the black middle class. So it’s not just poor folks that have been affected.

I do think the media has not covered the way race has affected this. You mentioned that report card; a lot of social justice folks are working on these issues, and I think that is an aspect I also want to mention. There is inspiring organizing, organizations like Stand for Dignity that work with homeless men and other working poor folks in the city, organizations like Vote NOLA that works with families of former incarcerated folks to try to build political power for them in the city, to incite women of color against violence, who are working especially around healthcare in the city. So there’s a lot of important organizing here, but the resources, whether from the government or even from progressive foundations, have not come through, nor has the media given coverage.

JJ: That was reporter Jordan Flaherty, before that we heard from A.C. Thompson, Colette Pichon Battle and Rosa Brooks.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.