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Katrina Aftermath coverage: Where's the Big Picture?



He was speaking over a cellular telephone connection, sizing up story ideas, juggling broadcast priorities and taping up a broken window all at the same time.

Still, NBC anchor Brian Williams found time to call me, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding it brought had devastated New Orleans before a national audience, certain that the destruction and suffering we all had witnessed would bring important changes.

"We're going to be talking about this in someway for the rest of my lifetime and yours," he said, certain that the debacle of delayed relief and starving in the streets would kick off a new national dialogue on race, class and poverty in America. "I think my children will have children before this issue is over. I think this -- like it or not -- This will color our debates...color our coversations on these larger issues for a long time."

At the time, Williams expected to craft a prime time special, perhaps two hours long, to cover all the issues. He got a 30-minute documentary which aired on an NBC Universal-owned cable network, the Sundance Channel.

Indeed, the media world will turn its eyes to New Orleans this week, covering the twin events of the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras and the six-month anniversary of the storm which nearly destroyed the city. Every major TV network will anchor its evening newscasts from the Big Easy today and tomorrow; NPR's All Things Considered will be there all week; CNN's Anderson Cooper has already gone there to continue covering the story which helped make his national reputation. There will be lots of stories about individual suffering, government incompetence and the struggle to rebuild

But in all this coverage, that larger national dialogue -- the one where the nation re-examines issues of poverty, race and class in America, aided by strong journalism -- hasn't really happened.

I'll have a story in Wednesday's Times about why. But here's a few thoughts on the issue from people who should know.

Jim Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper: "I think it hasn't happened on a national basis, mainly because its not a topic by and large people are
comfortable with. It has to be forced on them. Once the dire circumstances go away, so does most people's willinness to have the conversation. In New Orleans, it is or will be happening, in part, because the city has to be reinvented...and all those issues are wrapped up in race in New Orleans.''

Michele Norris, co-anchor, National Public Radio's All Things Considered: "There are reporters chipping away at these issues, but it hasn't sparked this big thematic debate that we saw around poverty in 1968. More than anything else, that came out of political leadership. Hearings on the issue. Bobby Kennedy taking a bipartisan group of senators into the South....Many reporters have talked about the epiphanies they've had. I think that story will live inside them. And may change the way they look at the politics of poverty and the conditions of poverty. You may see the coverage change in more subtle ways based on what reporters have seen.''

Andrew Tyndall, network news analyst: "You'd have to say the majority of the still on the level of human interest and focusing on the evacuees themselves, rather than on the underlying issues. There's no evidence that there's any increase in (network news) coverage, even by NBC, on the other issues -- urban policy, poverty, race relations, coastal environmental policy, including wetlands preservation and global warming, and energy conservation...In the abscence of news, all of this coverage has to be at the level of feature coverage.''

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director, The Project for Excellence in Journalism: "I think for history to have taken on a meaning about race and class and probably economic policy, that would have required some eloquent and continuing arguments by opponents of the Bush administration, and opponents of the Republican party. The Democrats weren't up to that...(and) there was enough blame to go around here....The first task ofthe press after Katrina was to find out what went wrong and what's happening on the ground now. The issue of what's to be done from here, even now, is probably beyond the skill set of the press. What we're talking
about now, trying to figure out in a larger sense what does this mean -- What did it expose about us as a country? -- That's pretty high order work. In the end, that comes down to "What is the American public ready to believe?'''

Jonathan Alter, columnist, author and pundit, Newsweek magazine and NBC News: "In some ways, it's another missed opportunity of the bush presidency. In the same way that after 9/11 he had a way to rally and unify the country, after katrina, he had the same opportunity. And in both cases, he squandaered it. . I do think that's what newspapers, magazines and TV networks don't recognize: there's a great interest in this. It was one of those television moments; kind of like when the dogs and fire hydrants were turned on the civil rights demostrators...(But) the images alone don't bring change.''

Jane Knitzer, executive director, National Center for Children in Poverty: "You ask why (no national dialogue)...we puzzle over that a lot. Americans don't like to talk about poverty. And if they do talk about it, they like to see it as an individual problem, not a structural problem. It's kind of blaming the victim, and not looking at what happens when you make policy choices which priviledge the wealthy."

History Channel gves $10,000 to Help Florida Historians Looking for Angola

Ever since TV producer Vickie Oldham left her job at Sarasota ABC affiliate WWSB-TV -- she was one of five black women who challenged the station's license renewal on grounds of racial discrimination -- she had the story of Angola in the back of her mind.

For years, she worked to unearth the story of an all-black settlement founded somewhere along the Manatee River by runaway slaves in the early 1800's; the oldest known instance of a black community in Florida. She raised more than $100,000 to further her research and make a documentary, Looking for Angola, which debuted on public TV last week.

Now she's got another $10,000 from the History Channel, to fund archaelogical digs and get students involved with the site excavation while learning about the community -- a most excellent way to spend five figures, preserving and unearthing a little-known chapter in Florida's annals of black history.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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