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August 27, 2007

Katrina And The National Media: Absence Of A Soul


(click for full size)

As we head into this week’s commemoration-a-thon, I’m thinking about how the national press has had such a hard time dealing with Katrina’s ongoing humanitarian disaster.

Although this photo is poignant, speaking to futility and abandonment, the NYT Mag primarily devotes its Katrina second anniversary cover story to the insurance industry.  Likewise, the theme of TIME’s anniversary cover story two weeks ago (which we discussed here on August 10) dealt mostly with flood engineering and the vulnerability of marshes, swamps and barrier islands.

I suppose the absence of even one soul in either cover is supposed to convey profound loss and disappearance.  Still, I find this tendency disconcerting.  Just like the lead image from Saturday’s front page story in the LA Times (or the previous TIME cover on the catastrophe, for that matter), we hardly see a sign of life.

So, are these images effective for the absence of people, or do they reflect a disaster without a human face?

(image: Sasha Bezzubov for The New York Times. NYT Magazine.  August 26, 2007.

  • Doctor Jay

    Is it possible that a photo such as this makes it easier for the average reader to relate to the disaster, since the average reader is white, and the average victim is, ahem, not?
    Another thought: You could run a two-year-old photograph placing victims at the scene, but if you wanted to run current photographs, what would you choose? Someone rebuilding even now? That’s kind of a mixed message, it seems to place personal responsibility on them for being slow. Victims in the camps, as in Alan Chin’s photographs? Well, that’s kind of abstract.
    It’s convenient when the bad news for the administration doesn’t have a good picture to illustrate it.

  • gmoke

    Nobody’s in the pictures because there’s nobody there who counts.

  • Cactus

    The Bag’s title should be ‘Absence of Soul’ since NOLA was a city with soul and plenty of it. Turns out Rove is the one without a soul. The recent newsletter from Greg Palast shows just how much he had to do with the destruction of NOLA and why. digby gives a good accounting and puts it all together over at
    Interesting that the photo shows lots of green grass and no black people. Isn’t that what it’s all about? These republican-christo-fascist-racist-aholes just can’t stand black people. Especially poor black people who are democrats. The current administration has given these racists the license to say so out loud and be proud of it. I just got an email from a southern relative just passing on the words of a black minister (?) repeating what lazy good-for-nothings some blacks are, just waiting for the government to bail them out. Boy did I give him a piece of my mind. Pointing out that the bushies knew ahead of time that there was a crack in the levees and refused to tell the (democrat) governor and mayor (dino) about it for days. Of course by then it was too late.
    Okay, I’ll quit now. But all this really makes me angry.

  • PTate in FR

    “So, are these images effective for the absence of people, or do they reflect a disaster without a human face?”
    An interesting question. If the covers had a person on it, the story would be about that person or that person as a representative of some group of people. Consider the bridge collapse in Minnesota–there the coverage was about every individual who was on the bridge. Ditto the recent flooding. Again the focus was on individual human interest stories. These are news stories that the media knows how to cover. The scope is small, the next steps focused. We need a new bridge. People have to clean up. The media loves the human interest story.
    The destruction of New Orleans, however, was big. The number of people affected was big. The cause was big. The consequences are big. It doesn’t help that many of the people most seriously affected were poor and black–that means the stories are being told by a sympathetic, elite, white media. It isn’t an easy story to tell in any case. It is even harder when the media is acting as the voice for someone whose experience is not their experience. At the time, I thought the New Orleans Times-Picayune had the best coverage, and I wonder, now, in hindsight, if that is because it was telling its own story. I notice that their “two years later” story leads off with the personal story of one resident, homeowner Elise Hamilton. The national media with homogenized coverage may not function very well in a fragmented nation.
    As I reflect on the lack of people in the covers, I would propose that the media doesn’t know how to tell this story. The story itself is faceless, without body. All the normal angles keep falling short. The easy explanation for this failure is laziness, stinginess and time pressure–an unwillingness to actually take the time to do the legwork, to make contacts, talk to people and build a story in the old-fashioned way. A lot of modern journalism simply phones in the story. They go for the quick sensational, rather than the in-depth thoughtful. A haunting photo of a staircase floating in air is easier to take, more evocative and fear-inducing than a photo of ones neighbor, a middle-aged, plump homeowner standing in the midst of construction debris.
    A more sobering possibility that the media doesn’t know how to tell this story because the real story is unknown to us–global climate change and our complete inability to adapt, as individuals or government, to the magnitude of what is coming down the pike. The media are trying to tell the Katrina story using the familiar sentimental human interest disaster script: disaster, personal impact, recovery, restoration to normal. But the destruction of New Orleans by Katrina was a harbinger of the future. We don’t have scripts about Global climate change yet: Disaster, compounded by incompetence, followed by disaster, followed by dramatic, painful, on-going adjustment, uncertainty and confusion, the worst hardships suffered by the most vulnerable. With regard to global climate change, most people just want to pretend that everything is A-okay, the consequences are happening to someone else, not to worry, we don’t need to change anything, we don’t have to do anything differently. So the script and the disaster don’t have a recognizable face yet. No one is there yet.

  • PTate in FR

    …or cactus, who posted while I was still composing my thoughts, suggests another story. The media could tell this one but doesn’t: An unprincipled government that intentionally, deliberately works against the interests of its citizens.

  • Cactus

    Sorry to say this, but I think PTateinFR is way too easy on the media. They know very well how to cover this story but they are afraid of getting on the wrong side of this vindictive administration. That’s the end result of all those cozy dinners the media has with the politicos. They identify with them and want to be like them. People in media today make a lot of money. They don’t want to give that up. There are no more hard-scrabble working class reporters, writing the stories of the downtrodden, the injustices, the petty failures of the common man or woman. These people are invisible to the media, just as the blacks of NOLA are invisible to this administration. The retching racism of the south is shared by them, except in nicer language. So if it takes the death by drowning of one of our oldest cities and many hundreds of it’s inhabitants and the forced relocation of thousands of others to turn Louisiana from a democartic state to a republican one, well, so what? Rove will get his two additional senators for the republicans; and that photo above? There ARE blacks in that photo, but they are all invisible, just as the NYT wants them to be.

  • jtfromBC

    Catcus, your comments about reporters brought to mind Izzy’s and his four page weekly paper, He was an intrepid reporter back in the 50 and 60 who scooped the MSM regularly. If you were busy doing other stuff back then, check him out sometime, he goes well with gourmet coffee
    “You may just think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive.” [on journalistic marginalization of him]
    In 1964, Stone was the only American journalist to challenge President Johnson’s account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

  • Cactus

    jtfromBC: Indeed I do remember Izzy; he was a feisty bulldog and no one was going to keep him quiet. What a jewel he was. I think there are some today, a few perhaps, who try to walk in his footsteps, but they have a hard time finding jobs. Hightower comes to mind, as does Palast and Chris Hedges. But none, I think, have that dogged determination to dig into records and do the dirty work of uncovering malfeasance in office. But then, this gang of thieves would be a challenge even for Izzy.

  • lowly grunt

    The one good thing about Katrina coming to land on August 29 is that the media will take two whole days to beat that drum until they abandon it to flog the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death on the 31st.

  • Margaret

    Historian Douglas Brinkley was on NPR today saying that the administration has decided to abandon New Orleans. The French quarter tourist destination will stay, but the rest will be quietly neglected to death.
    Brinkley wishes someone would have the leadership (=cojones) just to say that. He really wishes someone would have the leadership to do what’s necessary to see that one of America’s great cities doesn’t die, but he seems to realize that won’t happen.
    All that’s left is honesty.
    No wonder the media has such a hard time with the story. The truth is so unpalatable. What still surprises me is the national forgetting that’s gone on. If the same thing had happened in San Francisco, would there be “earthquake fatigue”? I think not.
    Even given that the majority of those affected were poor and black, I still can’t understand why people don’t see the handwriting on the wall. Another few strokes got added when Bush said there’d be no taxes to rebuild infrastructure after the MN bridge collapse.
    Sooner or later, it’s going to hit everyone’e home town. And then what?

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