After two weeks of watching poor, often black residents of New Orleans struggle to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, NBC News anchor Brian Williams made a bold prediction.
"If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we've failed," Williams said last September, speaking by cell phone from the city.
"I'm going to approach my network to do something in prime time. . . . I don't know if it's one hour or two, a town hall meeting with smart, professional people," he said. "It's often said that we blew our last chance at a national discussion on race when the Lewinsky scandal broke (and distracted President Bill Clinton). . . . But I do know we have our next opportunity before us."
But even though Williams has made coverage of Katrina and its aftermath the signature story of his anchor tenure, the expansive, nationwide soul-searching he predicted has not come to pass.
Journalists who have aggressively reported the issue for months agree: Katrina's aftermath has not sparked the wider national dialogue some expected.
And they are not quite sure why.
"It frankly confounds me," said Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, which is broadcasting from New Orleans this week. "It's talking about problems for which there are no easy answers. These are stories worth doing, but you have to wrestle them to the ground."
Susan Feeney, a senior editor at All Things Considered, said NPR mostly has told stories of race and class through pieces on individuals affected by the storm, though NPR hopes to present a larger look at poverty in coming weeks. "I didn't think we understood Katrina would be breaking news six months later," she said. "It's not a good excuse. . . . We have a responsibility to raise issues no one else is raising. (But) we have not done the big step back on poverty, and boy, we really want to. We've always felt like if we don't do it, no one will."
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper also earned praise for his emotive, regular reporting from the region, developing a segment for his evening newscast on rebuilding efforts called "Keeping Them Honest." But even though Cooper and the channel's American Morning show will host their programs from New Orleans this week, CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein downplayed the idea of tackling larger social issues in coverage.
"We go in looking for stories, not issues which need to be raised," said Klein, resisting the notion that Cooper has become a crusader for Katrina victims in his reports. "Our work has not been subjective. . . . Our coverage has been driven by an insistence on getting answers from people who have a lot of explaining to do. . . . We're sure that in covering those stories, viewers are smart enough to see the issues underneath."
Even as a host of news outlets marshaled their resources to cover the six-month anniversary of Katrina's landfall this week (Williams, CBS's Bob Schieffer and ABC's Charlie Gibson all anchored evening newscasts from New Orleans), the reports were more specifically focused on the details of disaster and the struggle to rebuild devastated areas.
Williams, who rode out the storm inside New Orleans' Superdome and kept the Nightly News broadcast focused on the issue for six months, could not be reached this week for comment.
But Andrew Tyndall, an analyst who counts the minutes network newscasts devote to story topics, noted that even though Williams and NBC have spent the most time among broadcast networks on post-Katrina coverage by far, no outlet has devoted much airtime to larger issues. "Coverage of poverty as an issue has been invisible since welfare reform," said Tyndall, who noted the rise of the stock market in the mid '90s prompted networks to spend less time on the poor. "I don't see that Katrina has changed that paradigm."
With more reporting strength and the ability to offer in-depth information, print outlets would seem a better source for such coverage. But New York Times public editor Byron Calame's Sept. 11 column noted that "over the past decade, Times readers would have been hard-pressed to find a news headline about the poverty" in New Orleans. (Calame declined to comment last week on how the Times has performed since then.)
A brief search through news story databases revealed a sprinkling of print stories on more general issues of race and poverty post-Katrina: a Jan. 15 New York Times story on what makes a living wage; a Chicago Tribune series in October on economic challenges in the Midwest called "The Broken Heartland"; an expansive look in Newsweek magazine at the growth of American poverty called "The Other America."
But such intermittent efforts didn't turn these issues into what experts call a "meta-story" - the kind of issue that draws repeated and consistent coverage from most major news outlets.
"You ask why (there's no national dialogue on poverty). . . . We puzzle over that a lot," said Jane Knitzer, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, a nonpartisan think tank. "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 privilege the wealthy."
Even the author of Newsweek's story, columnist and pundit Jonathan Alter, never thought the magazine's stories would ignite a larger conversation, mostly because politicians and policymakers themselves weren't talking about it.
"We were just trying . . . to go from almost no talk about poverty to some talk about it," Alter said. "This goes to a more complicated question: Why do politicians and the media have such a hard time talking about systemic problems? I think the culture of news and politics has moved to personalities. If you don't have a individual caught up in it, it's hard to tell that story."
After seeing statistics indicating poverty had increased over four consecutive years, with Midwestern cities such as Detroit bearing higher percentages of poor people and lower median incomes than New Orleans, journalists at the Chicago Tribune worked to assemble a series of stories on what caused the economic slide.
"This has sort of happened below the radar and over the last 10 years or so has gotten worse as manufacturing slipped away," said Tribune reporter Michael Oneal, noting the newspaper's next set of stories will focus on possible solutions. "It's not easy to maintain a conversation about this because it's depressing and not easily solved. There's a lot of people refinancing their houses and buying 36-inch TVs. . . . That's what they're focused on."
With some news consumers already complaining of "Katrina fatigue," the sad truth may be that average citizens are not interested in the larger conversation either.
"I think it's now mostly being reported as a story of government failure," said Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "(And) my hunch is that we're ever more prone to move on."
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ON THE WEB
Offer your take on the post-Katrina dialogue at media critic Eric Deggans' blog: sptimes.com/blogs/media.
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