Thursday, September 01, 2005

"What Newscasters Won't Talk About"

Thought this article was so on point. Just heard that they have suspended the Superdome evacuation...I have a sinking feeling that things are going to get ugly very quickly. After reading this article check out Larry Jame's blog.

"What the newscasters didn't say"

I can't say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class. Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren't wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.

Now, don't get me wrong. Just because 67 percent of New Orleans residents are black, I don't expect CNN to rename the storm "Hurricane" Carter in honor of the black boxer. Just because Katrina's next stop after destroying coastal Mississippi was counties that are 25 percent to 86 percent African-American (according to this U.S. Census map), and 27.9 percent of New Orleans residents are below the poverty line, I don't expect the Rev. Jesse Jackson to call the news channels to give a comment. But in the their frenzy to beat freshness into the endless loops of disaster footage that have been running all day, broadcasters might have mentioned that nearly all the visible people left behind in New Orleans are of the black persuasion, and mostly poor.

To be sure, some reporters sidled up to the race and class issue. I heard them ask the storm's New Orleans victims why they hadn't left town when the evacuation call came. Many said they were broke—"I live from paycheck to paycheck," explained one woman. Others said they didn't own a car with which to escape and that they hadn't understood the importance of evacuation.

But I don't recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn't risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he'd have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.

What accounts for the broadcasters' timidity? I saw only a couple of black faces anchoring or co-anchoring but didn't see any black faces reporting from New Orleans. So, it's safe to assume that the reluctance to talk about race on the air was a mostly white thing. That would tend to imply that white people don't enjoy discussing the subject. But they do, as long as they get to call another white person racist.

My guess is that Caucasian broadcasters refrain from extemporizing about race on the air mostly because they fear having an Al Campanis moment. Campanis, you may recall, was the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president who brought his career to an end when he appeared on Nightline in 1987 and explained to Ted Koppel that blacks might not have "some of the necessities" it takes to manage a major league team or run it as a general manager for the same reason black people aren't "good swimmers." They lack "buoyancy," he said.

Not to excuse Campanis, but as racists go he was an underachiever. While playing in the minor leagues, he threw down his mitt and challenged another player who was bullying Jackie Robinson. As Dodger GM, he aggressively signed black and Latino players, treated them well, and earned their admiration. Although his Nightline statement was transparently racist, in the furor that followed, nobody could cite another racist remark he had ever made. His racism, which surely blocked blacks from potential front-office Dodger careers, was the racism of overwhelming ignorance—a trait he shared (shares?) with many other baseball executives.

This sort of latent racism (or something more potent) may lurk in the hearts of many white people who end up on TV, as it does in the hearts of many who watch. Or, even if they're completely clean of racism's taint, anchors and reporters fear that they'll suffer a career-stopping Campanis moment by blurting something poorly thought out or something that gets misconstrued. Better, most think, to avoid discussing race at all unless someone with impeccable race credentials appears to supervise—and indemnify—everybody from potentially damaging charges of racism.

Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can't make an error without destroying careers. That's a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of last night's anchors could have asked a reporter, "Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we're seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we're airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans."

If the reporter on the ground couldn't answer the questions, a researcher could have Nexised the New Orleans Times-Picayune five-parter from 2002, "Washing Away," which reported that the city's 100,000 residents without private transportation were likely to be stranded by a big storm. In other words, what's happening is what was expected to happen: The poor didn't get out in time.

To the question of looting, an informed reporter or anchor might have pointed out that anybody—even one of the 500 Nordic blondes working in broadcast news—would loot food from a shuttered shop if they found themselves trapped by a flood and had no idea when help would come. However sympathetic I might be to people liberating necessities during a disaster in order to survive, I can't muster the same tolerance for those caught on camera helping themselves in a leisurely fashion to dry goods at Wal-Mart. Those people weren't looting as much as they were shopping for good stuff to steal. MSNBC's anchor Rita Cosby, who blurted an outraged if inarticulate harrumph when she aired the Wal-Mart heist footage, deserves more respect than the broadcasters who gave the tape the sort of nonjudgmental commentary they might deliver if they were watching the perps vacuum the carpets at home.

When disaster strikes, Americans—especially journalists—like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we're all in it together. This spirit informs the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, in which a "can't we all just get along" moment arrives at the film's end: Volcanic ash covers every face in the big crowd scene, and everybody realizes that we're all members of one united race.

But we aren't one united race, we aren't one united class, and Katrina didn't hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians—and perhaps black Mississippians—suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they're racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn't pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, "Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?"


Note to Al Campanis' departed soul: Al, if you had endowed a foundation to build a 50-meter pool in an urban neighborhood and hired some good coaches, I bet that pool would have spawned Olympic-caliber swimmers.

Jack Shafer is Slate's editor at large.


kenny said...

great article.

Jana said...

"...the racism of overwhelming ignorance...may lurk in the hearts of many white people who end up on TV, as it does in the hearts of many who watch. Or, even if they're completely clean of racism's taint, anchors and reporters fear that they'll suffer a career-stopping Campanis moment by blurting something poorly thought out or something that gets misconstrued."

I believe this oh-so-true. I'm not a journalist, but I get nervous talking about racism issues for the aforementioned reasons.

"By failing to acknowledge upfront that blacks suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they're racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population."

Will any journalists step up to the challenge? I sure wish someone would.

kenny said...

Just heard an "on-the-scene" reporter from ABC News quickly say "...most are black and poor..." It was pretty glossed over, but it was something!

Chris Ewing said...

What newcasters won't talk about, especiallly Fox News, is how stupid and dense Bush really is. He keep complaining about the response of government officals. I want to scream, "You're in charge of the government officals!!!!". Maybe if we rename New Orleans and call it Baghadad, maybe then he might see the urgency to help.

Anonymous said...

That's helpful, Chris.

kaspit said...

Your writing about the poor is tremendously important. I'll link to you on this topic in my Jewish environmental and social justice blog. Thanks.

c said...

Great stuff J.

Traivs Stanley has a really good book review on his blog that deals with white supremacy/racism/stuff you identified with. Challenging.

Matt Henegar said...

Interesting points, although all of them seem rather pointless in the current circumstances. What is most interesting to me is the willingness of all the "talkers" to sit back and criticize all of the "doers" (whether they be reporters, mayors, governors, FEMA directors, Presidents, whatever). What we need right now is people who are willing to step up and lead with actions -- not words. And to Mr. Ewing, I would remind him of that age-old saying: "sometimes it is better to remain silent and let others think we're a fool than it is to open our mouths and remove all doubt." Now is not the time to engage in social reflection regarding the plight of African-Americans (or to fuel our anger at a President with whom we disagree). Let's save the pontifications and the vitriolic rhetoric for another day, get off our asses, and figure out a way to REALLY help those who are most in need. I'm starting to think the world of "talk" (i.e., talk radio, the blogosphere, etc.) has turned us into a nation of back-biting, nit-picking whiners.

Nothing against you, Jason -- I think you're awesome and love your curious and open mind.

kenny said...

...yet another reason I don't discuss politics on my blog...

J-Wild said...

It's is absolutely devastating what has transpired over the last four days since I uploaded this post.

Considering what has happened I have to totally agree with Matt (thanks for commenting). Discussing the trepidation journalist seemed (past tense) to have in talking about race in the early days of this crisis does seem incredibly pointless. Although to be honest I wish the most scandalous issue to come out of this whole mess centered on journalists and their reluctance to talk about race in their reporting at the begining of this crisis.

However, I believe that now some of the biggest heros in all of this are in fact the journalists. The ones I have seen have seemed to loose their impartiality and have, in a sense, become the champions of people who have been stranded and left unprotected by our Government. Praise God for the journalists and photo journalists who are down there. Matt I agree with you again that we need people who are willing to step up and lead with actions. What is so striking to me is how much we don't have a Guiliani during 9/11 figure, or a Bush with a megaphone moment in this situation. The head of FEMA hasn't even been down there yet. Bush visited the devastated people of the Gulf coast which is to be expected, but as he flew out of the New Orleans Int. Airport he didn't visit the refugee's in the airports terminal. The one's who had been stuck in New Orleans for days without help. That's a different picture of Bush who went and spent hours in the Javits Center with people who had just lost their loved ones in the Trade Center. I am not saying he doesn't care. I believe he cares deeply about those people, but I think he also realizes the political mess this all could be. And when politicians sense that "the buck" is searching for someone to stick to, they often times stay out of sight and lay really low.

I don't believe this situation requires us to sit back and engage in social reflection. NO reflection needed, it's playing out right before our eyes. The question is do we have the courage to face it? Do we have the courage to face the fact that THOUSANDS of people have been left to fend for themselves, and that the majority of those people are old, sick, poor, very young, and mostly black? Can we face the fact that we are totally unprepared as a nation to deal with major, predictable (forget unpredictable) catastrophe's and that thousands will die because of that lack of preperation? Can you imagine, in light of all this, what would happen if Westchester Co. and Queens all of a sudden became uninhabitable (Indian Point has a reactor meltdown)? That strikes fear in my heart, because we are dealing with million's more people.

It's not just the poor, old, young, and sick people who have been abandoned, but it's been the doctors and nurses in the hospitals that are FULL of patients. People knew there were sick people there, yet they were still left alone for days on end. I DO NOT ACCEPT the idea that we couldn't get resources or protection into these places. If camera crews, reporters, and refugees made it into these places - why can't the army, national guard, or other entities get there. I am sure history will illuminate the reasons, but for now I can't imagine any being adequate or understandable.

Finally, I believe the world of talk radio, blogosphere, etc has only enabled more people to voice their opinions and raise questions that sometimes force people in power to answer. That is such a vital thing. I hope in the coming months those worlds remain a blaze so that those we elect are forced to deal with the forces that have gotten us in our situation today. However, ultimately that comes back to you and me and doesn't just stop with the politicians.

Kate said...

I saw a piece yesterday about a woman who was looking for her father. A family member had seen him briefly on the news and told the daughter. She hunted down the reporter and the crew took her to the place they had been filming. Someone who had a list of those in the shelter (amazing since most reports that I have heard say no one has been taking registers - no one is in charge at most of these shelters!)found the father's name. Even so, it took 3 hours after that for the daughter to find him there. These are the "lucky".

Matt Henegar said...


I am equally frustrated by the fact that it took so long for rescue to come. However, I would point you to an article in today's Washington Post that talks about the logistical nightmare that was/is New Orleans. Let's keep in mind that after the towers fell on 9/11, people were able to walk out of the city and rescue workers were able to drive right up to the affected areas. In this case, the only access to the victims was by helicopter and small boat. When volunteers did go out into the city by small boat, they were shot at and told by local officials to stand down for fear that rescuers would be killed. Helicopters (in addition to being shot at) had a difficult time maneuvering through the wires, buildings, billboards, etc. that surround urban areas and didn't have the capacity to conduct massive evacuations on a large scale. Finally, no single individual was overseeing and coordinating efforts of the first responders. Contrary to the point raised earlier by Mr. Ewing, first responders are made up of a combination of local and state agencies that act at the ultimate direction of the mayor and/or the governor (which is a good thing because they are familiar with the local terrain and are typically in a better position to lead and coordinate relief efforts). Under the Constitution, the Governor of Louisiana would have to officially cede authority over those individuals (which the Bush Administration requested and the Governor of Louisiana rejected) in order to be able to step in and lead a consolidated relief effort. So for now, federal agencies are really acting at the direction of various local officials. In order to be effective, the relief effort needs to be coordinated by a single individual with a clear line of authority and a clear ability to respond in the face of this overwhelming and evolving tragedy. During 9/11, the bulk of the relief effort was conducted by the NYPD and the NYFD, all of whom had clear lines of authority (ultimately directed by Mayor Guiliani) and were very experienced in dealing with the hand they had been dealt. All of that is to say that the results of the relief efforts to date are not as far-fetched as they appear. American's tend to have a sense of invincibility and a belief that their government can do just about anything. The reality it seems is quite different.

Chris Ewing said...

Are my previous comments able to stand up under a closer investigation? Not at all. Do I have a graduate degree in public policy or international relations? Not even close. Do I claim to be an expert in the inter-workings of our government both here and abroad? Never.

My comments were not made by some one who thinks he knows it all, but by some one was just hurting and frustrated at the images he was seeing on TV. Most days I succeed in balancing my emotions with reason, but on that day I think it is clear that only my emotions were speaking.

The last thing any one needs in a time like this is to hear bitter sarcasm. For my part, I apologize. But I can't agree with Jason more that a social injustice has occurred and the Church must engage such injustice. Many churches today have made it their crusade to protect "moral values" in America. Maybe it is time for such churches to give their energy and time to social justice.


P.S.- It impossible to determine intention in blogs or emails. So I might be making a big deal out of nothing. But I do have one request to those whom I love and respect that disagree with me now and will in the future. It is the same request I make to children of Shiloh when they address me at camp. Please do not refer to me as, "Mr.". I have a name. My name is not "Mr."; my name is Chris.

Anonymous said...

The lack of a rescue is inexcusable. I have heard all the excuses and they are just little plops of poop in a big ole' pile. Quite easily, they could have requested church vans and busses from the state of Texas and would have gotten them. All those people could've been bussed out in 24 hours. Private help was turned away in the beginning because the Guard said it was too dangerous. Of course it was dangerous - combine post-traumatic stress syndrome with starvation and sick and dying people and you can pretty much guarantee dangerous. But I thought that's what the Guardsmen were GETTING PAID TO DO!If you lock people in a crowded , feces-filled dump, they get a little ticked! Hello.
If you want to help in a tangible way, you can buy Wal-Mart or Target cards in $10 or $20 amounts and send them to the Red CRoss to distribute to shelters. My parents live in Beaumont, TX- where 1500 people reside in a shelter- and that is the most requested item. 200 of those people are children without parents. Please give. Don't stop at words.

erinlo said...

Jason, I appreciate your post, but I do agree, at this point, it doesn't even matter. I hate that race has become such an issue on this tragedy. Why can't a tragedy just be a tragedy?? why do we have to blame the whites, the blacks, the democrats, the republicans.

We have spent all weekend at shelters and hotels. Yes, most of the people at the shelters are black, but most of the people at the hotels are black also. The people we visited with aren't pointing fingers. They are only sad. Most of these people have lost everything they own. As much as I HATE the situation, I am thankful to be in a place where me and my family can minister to these people. I'm pretty sure that if Hurricane Katrina never happened, I would have not ventured into a town like New Orleans to "preach the Word." Too risky. Do you think God knew us petty middle class white folk wouldn't go there, so He brought them here???

J-Wild said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Matt, thanks for the explaining the constitutional aspect of authority in this situation. It will be interesting to see how history will treat that decision. From my vantage point it looks like someone didn't really comprehend what was going on. I am sure I cannot appreciate the logistical nightmare that evacuating tens of thousands of people from a flooded city would be. To that end I think it seems reasonable to have a 48 hour lead up time, but five to six days just seems way too long. It's probably fair to say that officials didn't realize how quickly the looting could turn into vigilantism. Matt, again you are right in assessing the differences between 9/11 and this disaster. For one, water is much more difficult to deal with than fire and collapse. Thinking about a 300 foot breach in a flood wall versus a fire that consumes three hundred feet, the differences in containment are incomparable. We do have a sense of invincibility, because of our own foolishness and desire to believe that we (the government) can control more than what we really can. This is a scary look at what can really happen in the face of a city wide emergency. New Orleans has only 500,000 people! That's just a 1/3 of the population of Manhattan. What will the government response be like when the so called inevitable WMD terrorist attack happens? Doesn't make me feel too confident. Of course I am not going to move because of it, but it definitely gives me pause.

Erin, I agree with you that this tragedy is tragic regardless of skin color or a persons social, and economic status. However, I think that seeing this tragedy through the lens of race and class is very, very important. The facts are that the poor, disenfranchised, sick, old, and young will bear the full brunt of this tragedy in ways that I couldn't, or others like me couldn't, understand or relate to even if I lived in N.O. and my house was ten feet under water.

For me, if that was my experience, I have a dad who is a doctor that could easily afford to get me and my whole family on a plane to Seattle. Once there I could live with my mom who has a 2,000 square foot home with room enough for my whole family. Allison and I both have marketable skills (me less so than her) and the know how to get a job. My family has an extra car right now that we could use, and we could stay there for as long as we wanted. That's just my side of the family, the same is true for Allison's side. But I wouldn't have been there in the first place, because we have a car and money to travel and we would have evacuated. I don't think my experience would be unique, and in fact of the people I call my good friends their experience would be similar.

I beleive that if we don't see what has happened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with an understanding of race and poverty then we are really missing what is right before our eyes. On the news we see people who on some level experience injustice in their everyday lives whether that injustice be a lack of food, good education, proper housing, or safety. These same people are then left on their own in squalor, danger, and tremendous fear for up to five days in a disaster that everyone saw coming. I am not saying that they were left there just because they were black and poor, but I am saying that provisions weren't made for the poor ahead of time so that they could have been protected. I think we have to face up to that.

Anonymous said...

Matt H. says: "I'm starting to think the world of "talk" (i.e., talk radio, the blogosphere, etc.) has turned us into a nation of back-biting, nit-picking whiners."

So why are you commenting on a blog?