Third World

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

Having failed to respond to Hurricane Katrina in the manner expected of the world's leading nation—leaving flotillas of bodies winding through the drowned streets of New Orleans—the United States has finally gained membership in the third world. The membership is only provisional, however, as America has yet to fulfill all the requirements.

For example, in some of the poorest third-world countries, for lack of resources the bodies are left to float indefinitely. Here, in this Gulf Coast disaster, it's only been two weeks.

Also, in the underdeveloped world, many countries are dictatorships or feudal oligarchies that control the press and jail reporters who write things that displease the rulers. Sometimes these reporters are never heard from again. The United States hasn't gone that far yet. The Bush administration has only scared some reporters and many of their employers into timidity.

Katrina is a big story, and the press is a big part of it. One reason is that the press has done an admirable job of chronicling the suffering and posing hard questions to government about why so little was done to help people in the aftermath, seeing as how, days in advance, the storm was forecast as being of enormous power and heading straight for the Gulf shoreline. Both our national government and local governments bungled badly. Question: How can our leaders boast all the time about how we are the world's beacon of democracy and humanitarianism and excellence, when predictable events such as Katrina expose our conscious neglect of so many of our own people's basic needs?

The American press did well this time. Some national media windbags, mostly in Washington, hailed the coverage but said it was about time that the journalism community found its "voice" and finally talked truth to the powers that be. This preaching seemed odd, though, since no one could remember these media oracles ever campaigning for more aggressive reporting in the past, when the reporters in the trenches could have used an encouraging word. One of the oracles, as a matter or fact, actually endorsed the government's press restrictions in the 1991 Gulf War; the result, as we know, was sanitized coverage. I'm not using the names of these journalists because this issue is not about individuals but about the state of the profession.

Indeed, one reason the Katrina coverage stood out was that it was so honest and clear about government's failure. Shocked by the human wreckage, reporters put aside their usual deference and politesse when interviewing the officials responsible. Emotion and even anger at officialdom were heard in their voices as they talked of the victims whose fate had been disregarded.

Will the reporters sustain their outrage? Will they reclaim the aggressive portion of their historical role? (Reminder to critics of bold reporting: "Aggressive" is not synonymous with "hostile" or "insulting.") Will the reporters' nervous corporate bosses pass the word to them to cool it? I hope not. But even if such instructions are given, reporters will know that what they saw and lived through in New Orleans and elsewhere on the coast wasn't a one-time event or an exception to the rule. Our national government has more and more become a Potemkin village, a Hollywood set where the houses look welcoming and the people speak with noble words, but it's mostly a facade to distract us from the hollowness of those we elected.

The people of the Bush administration are also shocked, not by their own fecklessness, but by the knowledge that so many Americans witnessed their failure live on television. This story will not fade quickly. As the long recovery proceeds, the footage will be shown again and again. The reporters will need to keep their memories fresh if they are to continue to speak truth to power. And we will have to back them all the way, and not merely with more of those noble words.

In late 1970, I covered a storm of terrible proportions. A typhoon swept up the Bay of Bengal, pushing before it a tidal wave more than 20 feet high that struck the islands and coastline of what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. It swept more than 20 miles inland, before sweeping back to sea with equal force. At least 300,000 lives were lost. Floating bodies were everywhere. Finally, they were gathered up and placed in mass graves and covered over by bulldozers. Pakistani government relief didn't show up for a couple of weeks. The ruling group in Pakistan said the storm was Allah's way of practicing birth control.

I don't believe Americans are that cynical. But Pakistan is still our ally, and it's still essentially a third-world military dictatorship that spends three-quarters of its budget on its military machine. Only a pittance is left for schools and other human needs, so Pakistan has the atomic bomb and a largely illiterate population.

I see linkages with the third world because a large portion of our citizens are being left behind too. And there's plenty of blame to distribute. Very few wise men and women sit in power in Washington. Lobbyists for major corporations and other self-interested groups seem to govern from behind the Potemkin facade. The voting population seems to depend on wishful thinking rather than careful examination of the issues that affect the grit of their lives. Maybe we've become a culture that has tuned out the policy issues because they are too vexing or appear insoluble.

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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