Scrappy New Orleans advocates Levees.org try winning journalists with compliments instead of criticism
"You have received Levees.org's Seal of Approval for avoiding Katrina Shorthand in (your) review of HBO's Treme," the missive read. "we appreciate your attention to detail in stating that the levee breaches destroyed the city, not the hurricane itself..Saying Katrina flooded New Orleans is like saying traffic broke the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis."
The highlighted line came courtesy of time I spent in New Orleans five months after Katrina reporting on the fate of the city's Times-Picayune newspaper. An evening spent with investigative reporter Mark Schliefstein -- a guy who predicted the levees might fail and saw his house destroyed after Katrina proved him right -- led to a master class on the missteps in maintaining the levees system built to protect New Orleans in case nearby waters flooded.
After a few days talking to residents struggling to rebuild their lives in the wake of one of the nation's worst disasters, it was impossible to come away without a healthy knowledge of why New Orleans flooded and locals' burning frustration that they dodged a direct hit from a massive hurricane, only to see the flood waters it brought nearly drown the city.
Turns out, the website's letter, sent to our letters page, not me personally, was a new tactic by a group dedicated to combating misinformation about Katrina's impact on New Orleans and holding the Army Corps. of engineers accountable for the levees failure.
Past letters complimenting coverage have gone to the New York Times, Boston Globe and Denver Post, complimenting journalists for avoiding easy language which might lead readers to believe that the hurricane's impact flooded New Orleans. The group's leader estimates the 4-year-old group has given out about 50 such compliments over the last four months, even congratulating the New York Times for publishing a correction to a story which misstated the issue.
"After two years trying to catch flies with vinegar, we began to notice reporters getting the story right," said Sandy Rosenthal, founder and executive director of levees.org. "Recently, we though it might be good to catch flies with sugar."
One place where the sugary approach may not be working is the Times-Picayune, where the group has had past friction with executives, despite handing out eight approval letters to individual writers there. Rosenthal hopes to see the newspaper adopt a consistent style as a matter of policy -- in the same way newspapers have consistent style policies on the use of numbers or terms such as website.
In an email, Times Picayune editor Jim Amoss explained that, although the newspaper doesn't have an official policy, it does consistently refer to the man-made origin of post-Katrina flooding.
"We avoid referring to the catastrophe as a 'natural disaster' because the floodwalls did indeed collapse because of engineering failures," he wrote. "While we don't insist on the 'manmade' language, we take care to point out the cause of the disaster -- i.e., shoddy engineering and insufficiently anchored floodwalls -- when it's germane to a story."
"We consider Katrina Shorthand harmful to our recovery," she said. "Until the American people see the flooding as a federal catastrophe, they will never see rebuilding as a federal responsibility."
John Goodman's character on Treme, passionate college professor Creighton Bernette, has voiced the perspective of Levees.org. Look below to see a video from the group documenting a viewing party for Treme and the reaction to his words.