Erasing Katrina: Four Years on, Media Mostly Neglect an Ongoing Disaster

August 29 marked the fourth
anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf
Coast. The devastation wrought by both the hurricane itself and the
government's inept response prompted remarkably critical corporate
media coverage that promised to fight for Katrina survivors and change
the way we talk about poverty and race (FAIR Media Advisory, 9/9/05).

As NBC's Brian Williams told the St. Petersburg Times (3/1/06),
"If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the
environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think
we've failed." But four years later, corporate media outlets seem to
have largely forgotten about Katrina and its survivors, let alone the
conversations about race and poverty that were supposed to accompany it.

The Institute for Southern Studies issued a report (8-9/09)
in which more than 50 Gulf Coast community leaders graded officials on
their response to the ongoing disaster; the Obama administration
received a D+, while Congress received a D. (George W. Bush received a
D- in an earlier survey.) One million people are still displaced,
rebuilding continues at a glacial pace, and the levees being rebuilt
have been judged insufficient to protect New Orleans from another
Katrina-level flood.

But amazingly, according to a search of the Nexis news media database, neither the Washington Post nor the L.A. Times ran a single piece on Katrina in the past week. ABC and Fox News didn't mention the hurricane or its aftermath once.

CBS ran two segments (8/28/09,
8/31/09), as well as a brief headline (8/29/09) on Barack Obama's
weekly radio address that discussed post-Katrina reconstruction. The
one mention on MSNBC came on the Ed Show
(8/27/09), when host Ed Schultz singled out right-wing talk radio host
Neal Boortz for his hateful remarks about displaced Katrina survivors,
such as his recent commentary: "Obama wants to rebuild New Orleans?
Why? 'Build it and they will come'? 'They'? The debris that Katrina
chased out?"

NBC ran four segments, all of which
put a remarkably upbeat spin on the situation. In one piece (8/30/09),
reporter Ron Mott declared that while a third of the homes in New
Orleans are still vacant or abandoned, "positive news abounds. The
population is steadily climbing as are test scores in the overhauled
public school system." Another segment (8/30/09) reported that "the
city and its most famous cultural treasure are now well on the mend,"
while a day earlier (8/29/09), Saturday Today
anchor Lester Holt introduced a short piece on "encouraging new signs
for the city," in which reporter Mott announced that "much has improved
and a lot of people are working."

The New York Times published a
few pieces on Katrina, including an op-ed chart (8/28/09) and a report
(8/30/09) on Obama's speech. The cover story of its weekend magazine (8/30/09) was a long piece by Sheri Fink, of the nonprofit journalism outfit ProPublica,
on the "deadly choices" at a New Orleans hospital following the
hurricane--one of the few anniversary pieces to touch even obliquely on
issues of racism, quoting one doctor who helped euthanize patients as
saying he was worried about "the animals" outside--that "these crazy
black people who think they've been oppressed for all these years by
white people" might start "raping...or, you know, dismembering" people.

The Times also ran an article (8/31/09)
that talked about how the goal in New Orleans isn't to "revert to the
city that existed here before the flood," but instead focusing on
"revitalization." (See Extra!, 7-8/07.)
Further down it mentioned that "fundamental problems" still exist, like
high unemployment, and some neighborhoods that "seem barely touched"
since four years ago. Race, though, wasn't mentioned a single time.

The day before the Katrina anniversary, the Times did manage to run a front-page piece on the abysmal state of flood recovery--in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (8/28/09):
"Flooded Iowa City Rebuilding and Feeling Just a Bit Ignored." As
reporter Susan Saulny put it, "The outpouring of attention toward New
Orleans and the Gulf Coast, ratcheting up again now as the fourth
anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, has not been seen here. In
fact, the people of Cedar Rapids are feeling neglected."

As Saulny quickly made clear, her premise itself is flawed: "To be
sure, Hurricane Katrina's huge reach and a botched emergency response
devastated a far greater swath of the country than did the flooding in
the Midwest, and no one here is trying to make tit-for-tat disaster
comparisons. No lives were lost in the flooding in Cedar Rapids, and
the government's initial response to the crisis was generally
considered a success." And yet, the New York Times
saw fit to run a front-page piece on Cedar Rapids and not Katrina. That
"outpouring of attention" for Katrina victims Saulny described as
attending the fourth anniversary certainly wasn't to be found in the Times.

CNN, whose relatively heavy Katrina coverage helped boost host Anderson Cooper's profile at the network (Extra!, 7-8/06),
dedicated much more time than any other major outlet to the
anniversary, with a few dozen segments over the days before and after
August 29. But while some of the coverage dug deeper than other
outlets, it betrayed CNN's lack of
consistent interest in the issue. In one report, for example,
correspondent Gary Tuchman "tracked down" a story on vigilante justice
in which a white militia formed in a largely white neighborhood and
shot black passersby in the chaotic days following the hurricane. It's
a critical story--so why did CNN only come to it nearly nine months after ProPublica journalist A.C. Thompson (interviewed briefly in CNN's piece) broke the news in a lengthy investigative report published in the Nation (1/05/09)? It would seem the Katrina anniversaries are the only time such stories are considered newsworthy.

The media's neglect of the Gulf Coast is not a new thing; Extra! was writing about it as far back as July/August 2006. According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors TV news, there were 367 minutes on Katrina's aftermath that year (TVNewser, 1/3/07).
In 2007 it was down to 116 minutes, while in 2008 it was not among the
top 20 stories of the year. In the first seven months of 2009, Tyndall finds, there were just six Katrina-related stories (

There are plenty of ongoing stories to be told today. The Institute for
Southern Studies report also highlighted some startling statistics: In
addition to the estimated 1 million people still displaced by Katrina,
rents in the New Orleans area have increased by 40 percent since the
hurricane, and an estimated 11,000 people are currently homeless there.
The report also reveals striking racial disparities in the impacts:
Less than 49 percent of households in the largely African-American and
working class Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans are actively receiving mail
today (compared to 76 percent city-wide), for example, and black
children's enrollment in public and private schools dropped from 49
percent of all students to 43 percent.

Independent journalists and outlets, such as Jordan Flaherty (CounterPunch, 8/26/09) and Democracy Now! (8/31/09), as well as local journalists like the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Jarvis DeBerry (e.g., 8/21/09),
have been documenting such ongoing disparities and unfulfilled
promises. It's work the major outlets can and should be doing--and it
doesn't even have to wait until the next anniversary.

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