The Caste System

Media biggies ignored Times-Picayune's warnings—at everyone's peril

The Katrina disaster has peeled back the veil from many of America's shames and weaknesses. One of them is the press's caste system. Last week's Press Clips touched on this briefly, pointing out that the nation's media biggies, acting in character, had pretty much ignored the year-in-year-out reporting by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which kept warning that a hurricane tragedy of this magnitude was certain to befall the Gulf city. A five-part Times-Picayune series three years ago described, in eerie detail, the likely evacuation that actually happened, leaving behind New Orleans's poorest inhabitants.

The paper wrote: "The risk is growing greater. . . . Eventually a major hurricane will hit New Orleans head on. . . . It's just a matter of time. . . . People left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive . . . "

Sadly, there's nothing new about the national press's pretending that important stories uncovered by regional papers or alternative papers like this one were trees that had fallen in a deserted forest. In short, these stories don't exist, except when the biggies deign to cannibalize them, usually giving little credit to the papers of origin.

Some of this smugness has been penetrated by the arrival of the Internet and its infinite space for everyone with a computer to critique everything around them, including the press. Yet the caste system still exists—in all arenas, not just journalism—and will continue to ignore important others as long as the insecure human species determinedly insists on pecking orders.

The Washington press corps—for that matter, all press corps that cover national governments—consider themselves an elite. In one sense they are. Most of the members were chosen for the lofty assignment because of the real skills and energy they had shown when they served, so to speak, as shoe-leather reporters in the trenches. But in the end, despite those skills, many of them soften by being too close to power—or succumb to envy or awe of power. Whether it's Washington or New Delhi, the phenomenon is the same.

The Washington press corps is a caste system within itself. Reporters who work for small papers don't get to sit in the front at presidential press conferences.

To get back to the example of the Times-Picayune, this is a paper whose staff has performed a heroic service in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Flooded out of their Howard Avenue offices, they climbed aboard newspaper delivery trucks and drove off to escape the rising waters. About 15 reporters and photographers stayed behind to chronicle the destruction and human chaos.

Others on the 270-person news staff dispersed to higher ground elsewhere in Louisiana—to Houma and Baton Rouge—where local papers took them in and gave them space and power and telephones. An estimated one-third of the staff had lost their homes to the storm. Some had lost touch with members of their immediate family in New Orleans. Yet they continued to put out the paper.

For three days, they produced a digital paper on their website, nola.com, having gained experience during Hurricane Georges in 1998 on how to use the new tools to publish electronically in a disaster situation. By Thursday—Katrina had struck on Monday, August 29—they were back in print again, putting out 50,000 copies a day of a reduced-size paper on the Houma Courier's presses and delivering them to shelters and any habitable areas of New Orleans and its environs. Now they're printing at the Mobile Register, making possible a larger press run with more pages and color capability.

But the Times-Picayune has been much more than a newspaper. It was—and is—a rescue and people-connection center. The staff immediately began receiving streams of e-mails and other messages reporting the locations of survivors trapped in their city homes or on rooftops. Some of the messages came from faraway states. It turned out that many of the stranded had cell phones and were sending text messages to distant friends and relatives who were then contacting the paper's website. Government rescue services in and around New Orleans kept themselves linked continuously to the website to follow up on these S.O.S.'s. Many lives were saved this way. The website has become a vast community bulletin board informing both the remaining residents and the evacuees in neighboring states of every detail, as the flood waters continue to be drained and services slowly restored.

How long will this newspaper's contribution to its community be remembered by the rest of the nation's news industry? American attention spans have become sorely shrunken.

And with the increasing conglomeration of the industry into huge chains bent on homogenizing the news into one-size-fits-all, will fewer and fewer papers maintain a blood link to their communities—as used to be the standard? Yet the Times-Picayune is part of the Newhouse chain, so something must be working right in that big company, because Times-Picayune staffers have demonstrated that they are deeply tied to the place where they live. And deeply tied to superior journalism. They were also among the first responders to this tragedy.

Their commitment to their community—and their appropriate emotions—were reflected in an editorial titled "An Open Letter to the President" that ran on Sunday, September 4, six days after the storm struck. It read, in part:

"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame . . . tens of thousands of people trapped inside [the Superdome] with no air-conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials. . . . Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

"In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn't known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, 'We've provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they've gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day.'

"Lies don't get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President. Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, 'You're doing a heck of a job.' That's unbelievable."

But what about the media caste system? Will it persist? I would think so, in some form or another. It's possible, though, that it could become less virulent. It's certainly about time for journalists who work for "prestigious" papers to acknowledge and honor the special contributions of papers like the Times-Picayune and others who do first-rate work.

Any journalism elder like myself comes to know that solid reporting is being done all over this country. And as an elder, I have heard people at other New York City papers sneer at the work of now deceased New York Newsday, when it had put their metro coverage to shame. I have also heard sneers about the Voice's coverage of politics and government, which on a regular basis smokes out more government corruption than any of the sneerers do.

I would argue that if the mainstream papers in New York had followed up on the Voice's coverage of George Pataki's mottled history when he was running for governor for the first time in 1994, the state might have been spared 12 years of misguided, costly, crony governance.

The caste system carries a heavy cost. It weakens the news business.

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