It’s too bad it takes a disaster like Hurricane Katrina to draw the media’s attention to the disenfranchised and economically marginal in this “land of plenty” but that seems to be an obvious conclusion from this week’s coverage of the tragic situation in New Orleans. After years of drift by both TV news and newspapers toward serving advertisers who seek consumers with money rather than citizens who want to be nourished with information, this turn of events would be celebrated if it weren’t for the tragedy it took to generate it.
Even then it was a mixed bag. CNN’s curmudgeonly Jack Cafferty, repeatedly asked the question whether aid would be so slow in coming if the victims were the white, upper middle class instead of the largely poor, African American faces of victims that were flashed on the nation’s television screens this week. Other reporters started referring to the victims as refugees—quickly consigning the victims to third world status—a kind of “other” status that suggests they are less than “normal” Americans.
But largely, the reporting corps which has made it to New Orleans, many of whom had reported disasters abroad, have expressed their own personal shock at what was happening within the borders of the richest country in the world. While right wing radio commentators were busy victim blaming (who, in their pathetic world view, undoubtedly were wondering why families on welfare weren’t just packing up their Cadillacs and getting out of the city), reporters on the ground saw the dehumanized way in which people were being forced to cope and actually were able to generate some empathy for their plight.
The right wing talk crowd was merely aping the attitude expressed repeatedly by George Bush’s FEMA director, Michael Brown, who in one interview on MSNBC said several times “those who chose not to evacuate” before finally amending it to could not evacuate. This was countered by some reporters astute and knowledgeable enough to report that over a third of New Orleans residents do not own cars. Other officials, notably the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, started talking tough about “shoot to kill” orders for those caught looting when it was obvious that most looting was a matter of survival—food and water—and that only a few were trying to procure luxury items Again, some reporters commented that shoot to kill orders sounded more than a little harsh for a population obviously experiencing severe psychological and physical trauma.
This discovery (or perhaps in the legacy of the great documentaries like “Harvest of Shame,” re-discovery) of the poor by the nation’s news media is a welcome development after years in which things like welfare reform and health care were treated largely as a budget issues rather than issues of human dignity. In many ways, the media are merely following the cues of political leaders on both sides of the aisle who are usually preoccupied with playing to the issues of campaign contributors. A politics driven by campaign contributions given by a tiny minority of affluent people will not be focusing on issues which affect the vast majority struggling to make ends meet.
Perhaps this tragedy will mark a turn in values and priorities for the nation’s news reporters. Perhaps many of these well paid denizens of journalism now recognize there are two very separate Americas—the incredibly affluent which jets about the country and world like it is at their disposal and the growing sector of America which is experiencing a long, slow downward mobility as manufacturing and service work wages decline to sweatshop levels. Perhaps the kind of reporting which can unite the country will replace the kind of reporting which has exacerbated its divisions. Perhaps. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
James H. Wittebols is a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Windsor. He is the author of two books The Soap Opera Paradigm: Television Programming and Corporate Priorities (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) and Watching M*A*S*H, Watching America: A Social History of the 1972-83 Television Series (McFarland Publishers, 1998). His website and blog can be accessed at http://www.jameshwittebols.com. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org