Third World

Katrina puts us—and the press—in a different place

It is we who have chosen our leaders, so we can stop pointing at everyone else for the embarrassment and shame of Hurricane Katrina. To my mind, those reporters who saw the ineptness and callousness of government's response to Hurricane Katrina and spoke out with passion about it, in print and on the air, were simply doing their job. There may have been a few who were grandstanding, and if so, I would urge them to stop faking it and seek another vocation.

We in the press should also keep reminding ourselves of our notorious bad habits, such as how often we refuse to acknowledge the exceptional reporting of other news outlets. The country's major newspapers often simply ignore the important stories produced by regional or alternative newspapers. Where was the rest of the press when the New Orleans Times-Picayune, year after year, ran alarm bell articles about the dangerous state of the levees and other flood protection programs that finally failed two weeks ago?

Here's an excerpt from the five-part series The Times-Picayune published three years ago:

"The risk is growing greater. . . . Eventually a major hurricane will hit New Orleans head on. . . . It's just a matter of time. . . . Evacuation is the most certain route to safety, but it may be a nightmare. And 100,000 without transportation will be left behind . . . hundreds of thousands would be left homeless . . .

"People left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans. . . . Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own. . . . Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising waters. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or water, perhaps for several days."

The national press has to acknowledge that, before this disaster, it too didn't pay much attention to an endangered New Orleans and its mostly black population, whose poverty level was of third-world dimensions. So, in the future, when some important White House official who may be unqualified for his job tells reporters that this or that calamity could never have been predicted or that the media exaggerated the severity of the damage, the reporters should give him a polite burst of aggressive reporting—and make no apologies for it.

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