Lost in the Flood
Why no mention of race or class in TV’s Katrina coverage?
By Jack Shafer
Posted Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, at 4:22 PM PT
I can’t say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.
Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren’t wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because 67 percent of New Orleans residents are black, I don’t expect CNN to rename the storm “Hurricane” Carter in honor of the black boxer. Just because Katrina’s next stop after destroying coastal Mississippi was counties that are 25 percent to 86 percent African-American (according to this U.S. Census map), and 27.9 percent of New Orleans residents are below the poverty line, I don’t expect the Rev. Jesse Jackson to call the news channels to give a comment. But in the their frenzy to beat freshness into the endless loops of disaster footage that have been running all day, broadcasters might have mentioned that nearly all the visible people left behind in New Orleans are of the black persuasion, and mostly poor.
To be sure, some reporters sidled up to the race and class issue. I heard them ask the storm’s New Orleans victims why they hadn’t left town when the evacuation call came. Many said they were broke—”I live from paycheck to paycheck,” explained one woman. Others said they didn’t own a car with which to escape and that they hadn’t understood the importance of evacuation.
But I don’t recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn’t risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he’d have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm.
What accounts for the broadcasters’ timidity? I saw only a couple of black faces anchoring or co-anchoring but didn’t see any black faces reporting from New Orleans. So, it’s safe to assume that the reluctance to talk about race on the air was a mostly white thing. That would tend to imply that white people don’t enjoy discussing the subject. But they do, as long as they get to call another white person racist.
My guess is that Caucasian broadcasters refrain from extemporizing about race on the air mostly because they fear having an Al Campanis moment. Campanis, you may recall, was the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president who brought his career to an end when he appeared on Nightline in 1987 and explained to Ted Koppel that blacks might not have “some of the necessities” it takes to manage a major league team or run it as a general manager for the same reason black people aren’t “good swimmers.” They lack “buoyancy,” he said.
Not to excuse Campanis, but as racists go he was an underachiever. While playing in the minor leagues, he threw down his mitt and challenged another player who was bullying Jackie Robinson. As Dodger GM, he aggressively signed black and Latino players, treated them well, and earned their admiration. Although his Nightline statement was transparently racist, in the furor that followed, nobody could cite another racist remark he had ever made. His racism, which surely blocked blacks from potential front-office Dodger careers, was the racism of overwhelming ignorance—a trait he shared (shares?) with many other baseball executives.
This sort of latent racism (or something more potent) may lurk in the hearts of many white people who end up on TV, as it does in the hearts of many who watch. Or, even if they’re completely clean of racism’s taint, anchors and reporters fear that they’ll suffer a career-stopping Campanis moment by blurting something poorly thought out or something that gets misconstrued. Better, most think, to avoid discussing race at all unless someone with impeccable race credentials appears to supervise—and indemnify—everybody from potentially damaging charges of racism.
Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can’t make an error without destroying careers. That’s a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of last night’s anchors could have asked a reporter, “Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we’re seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we’re airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans.”
If the reporter on the ground couldn’t answer the questions, a researcher could have Nexised the New Orleans Times-Picayune five-parter from 2002, “Washing Away,” which reported that the city’s 100,000 residents without private transportation were likely to be stranded by a big storm. In other words, what’s happening is what was expected to happen: The poor didn’t get out in time.
To the question of looting, an informed reporter or anchor might have pointed out that anybody—even one of the 500 Nordic blondes working in broadcast news—would loot food from a shuttered shop if they found themselves trapped by a flood and had no idea when help would come. However sympathetic I might be to people liberating necessities during a disaster in order to survive, I can’t muster the same tolerance for those caught on camera helping themselves in a leisurely fashion to dry goods at Wal-Mart. Those people weren’t looting as much as they were shopping for good stuff to steal. MSNBC’s anchor Rita Cosby, who blurted an outraged if inarticulate harrumph when she aired the Wal-Mart heist footage, deserves more respect than the broadcasters who gave the tape the sort of nonjudgmental commentary they might deliver if they were watching the perps vacuum the carpets at home.
When disaster strikes, Americans—especially journalists—like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we’re all in it together. This spirit informs the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, in which a “can’t we all just get along” moment arrives at the film’s end: Volcanic ash covers every face in the big crowd scene, and everybody realizes that we’re all members of one united race.
But we aren’t one united race, we aren’t one united class, and Katrina didn’t hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians—and perhaps black Mississippians—suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they’re racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn’t pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, “Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?”
Note to Al Campanis’ departed soul: Al, if you had endowed a foundation to build a 50-meter pool in an urban neighborhood and hired some good coaches, I bet that pool would have spawned Olympic-caliber swimmers. Send your Katrina nuggets to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)