Monday, August 30, 2010

Katrina - 5 Years And Counting

Note to readers: On this, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I thought it noteworthy to reprise this editorial, which ran in black newspapers throughout America immediately after the 2005 catastrophe.

Media Hurricane is Spinning Out of Control

by Dwight Cunningham
NNPA Special Contributor

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Watching TV newscasts on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, I am struck by the media’s obvious tilt to covering the story of lawlessness rather than the bigger story of people who had little in the way of material things before Hurricane Katrina – and who have now been reduced to having nothing at all.

It seems the story fast became law enforcement’s inability to maintain law and order during a catastrophe, rather than the story of utter human despair in America.

Clearly, the survivor/refugee/rescue/recovery story has taken a back seat as images of Black people – to be sure, poor Black people – is “A” roll material, fed
continuously to a ravenous audience.

Just as clearly, those indelible images of desperate Black Americans are attempts to vividly portray Black America at its worst.
“Wild gangs” and the “urban menace,” Fox newscaster Bill O’Reilly proclaimed, were hurting search-and-rescue attempts.

The media is cementing those filtered words and images into the nation’s conscious. So that someday, when congressional hearings and blue-ribbon presidential panels are formed, such biased reporting will be used to formulate policy that could prove equally disastrous to Black America.

Who is monitoring today’s coverage? Is it the National Association of Black Journalists, for example, in a real concise, scientific way? That group and other respected journalistic organizations should be in the monitoring mode. Right now!

I worry about who is going to tell the story of the recovery effort and its impact on Black America. Will there be equal treatment, or no treatment at all, when federal and insurance dollars trickle in, whenever that is?

For the media, and left to our own devices, you can believe there will be huge gaps in the information chain.

In the past week, many times I have watched commentators with no new “news” to report. They are just rehashing what is mostly already out there, speculating to no one but themselves.

There is pitifully little in the way of racial diversity from the newscasters. Heck, as far as story content, Tuesday night, MSNBC’s anchor opened up the Katrina coverage saying there was also breaking news out of Aruba on the Natalie Hollaway story.

Again I ask: Who will cover Black America and the myriad angles as this story unfolds?

No doubt, Black households across the nation are dusting off spare rooms and sending Moneygrams to displaced family members. No doubt, people will need to be buried, yet there will be no money to bury them. Sick people will continue to die, perhaps needlessly, because the authorities did not mobilize as quickly as possible.

Yet, have you heard a “talking head” psychologist or trauma expert opine about the emotional distress our fellow Americans are under? By the way, when have they been referred to as fellow countrymen?

We hear them called “refugees” or “evacuees,” words used to disassociate them from the hard, cold fact that these are Americans perishing before our unbelieving eyes.

We have brothers and sisters whose collective lifestyles resembled a Third World nation – even before the hurricane hit. They were already living paycheck to paycheck. They didn’t leave the city because they couldn’t afford $2.75-a-gallon gas. They saw the huge parking lot on the interstates during the weekend evacuation, and decided to hunker down and pray.

And now they are dead. Or missing. Many others are certainly displaced and maybe perpetually homeless. They are engaged in basic human survival. And they need their elected officials to help.

This is the time for a democracy and the journalists protected under the First Amendment to embrace their basic ideals. For all the people. But will that be the case as the months, even years, go by, if no few Black journalists get to be truth tellers ?

The Black journalists association and other such groups may, at some point, look back and decry what the Fourth Estate failed to do. Or the organization can be a true journalistic leader by putting resources forth – today – to be a watchdog for Black America.

This is the worst calamity to ever befall the nation in my lifetime. Not the often deadly acts encompassing this nation’s struggle for civil rights. Not the King assassination and its riotous aftermath. And not the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington – nothing matches what we are witnessing in the Deep South.

Sadly, this calamity increasingly has a Black face. Judging from the media’s long history of ignoring minorities, I wonder whether we will really witness and hear unvarnished truth in the months ahead.

Or will the networks, newspapers, bloggers, talk radio, etc., be involved in pack journalism in a watershed event for Black America and the nation as a whole?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would dispatch a team of journalists soon – preferably in the next two to three weeks – to the disaster zone to begin covering the biggest story of the century and how it impacts 2 million Black Americans.

Undertaking such a major effort can inform the continuing national dialogue on life after Hurricane Katrina. Numerous human stories will not be covered in the months ahead, such as chronicling the lives of a Black family uprooted and relocated. Will journalists explore whether Black residents of the Gulf South will get a fair share of newly created jobs in the unprecedented rebuilding effort ahead? Who will monitor – watchdog – the distribution of aid, of federal funds, of state and volunteer efforts to rebound?

When the media does come around, betcha’ they get to happily film rich neighborhoods in suburban New Orleans receiving their first FEMA checks – but won’t dare ask when the Black folks from Lower Ward 9 will get theirs.

Who will do the relocation stories, and what will they say? Who will look for disparate treatment among the races and locales? What media organization, amid continuous corporate downsizing, will expend the resources to embed reporters and photographers to chronicle the biggest disaster in the history of the United States?

As a veteran journalist who has covered disasters, my concern runs deep that the Fourth Estate is on the way to missing a seminal opportunity to do its First Amendment job. Witnessing the churn of obvious media bias, I shudder to believe that the media will do a fair job of reporting this compelling human story.

I urge journalism foundations to seriously consider this watchdog task. In past years, they have made sincere attempts to racially and ethnically integrate American newsrooms, believing that strategy would add to better, fairer coverage.

And it has worked over the past 30 years. Oddly, much of that diversity fervor was generated after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The nation’s newspapers found they had few Black journalists to get the story of riots and the human despair that helped trigger such an explosive reaction.

Many White journalists were just too downright scared to go into the ghetto to do the job.

So many newspaper janitors and porters became reporters. And a movement grew to recruit more Black journalists to give a fairer and more accurate picture of what was going on in the nation’s cities and towns. Today, an even stronger effort should be marshaled to give a journalistic watchdog voice to the voiceless.

My concern runs deep that the Fourth Estate may miss a seminal opportunity to do its First Amendment job. Witnessing the churn of obvious media bias thus far, I am concerned that the media will continue to do a dishonest job of reporting this compelling human story.

The soul of American journalism is at stake.

Dwight Cunningham is a veteran newspaper and magazine journalist and journalism educator. He is spending a year at the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute in Nashville, Tenn. as training editor.

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