Wednesday, August 8, 2007

An Absence of Devastation--and Outrage

In surveying national media coverage of post-Katrina issues, what one comes away with is a very disconnected, superficial understanding of the ongoing crisis. Media outlets are peppered with a few reports here and there of announcements and policy updates from federal agencies like FEMA (“FEMA Stops Selling Disaster Trailers,” The Associated Press) or HUD (“Hurricane Aid is Extended for Some,” The New York Times). You might see an occasional tirade about the ongoing inefficiency of FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers (“The Threatening Storm,” TIME), responsible for rebuilding the coastal infrastructure to protect residents from future hurricanes. But there is little that accurately reflects the impact of widely agreed upon federal, state and local government neglect (this is by no means a radical assessment) on peoples’ daily lives—primarily low-income people and people of color. Nor is there sufficient coverage that examines public and private negligence in relationship to ongoing discrimination and lingering, pernicious inequalities based on race, class and gender.

Today, the headline of an AP article read: “New Orleans’ population continues to rise”. Only towards the very end did it reveal that those who are moving back are primarily returning to areas that incurred minimal damage during the storms. In contrast, it reports, in July, only 917 residents were living in the (primarily low-income, African American) Lower 9th Ward – 7 percent of its 2000 population. But in reading the article’s headline alone, or even the first several paragraphs, one could be led to believe that maybe, things were on their way back to “normal” in the city. The demographer on whose statistics the article is based is quoted as saying, “Everything is kind of happening in a natural progression.” “Natural” sounds an awful lot like “normal”.

Again, few articles—though a recent New York Times series, “Patchwork City”, provided a welcomed, substantive contrast—lead with the daily, life-threatening crises still lived by thousands throughout the Gulf Coast.

As such, there is little in the media to galvanize national public outrage. With surface-level, sporadic, and acronym-laden coverage, how are people throughout the country to know there is an ongoing human-rights crisis in the Gulf Coast? Let alone that grassroots leaders—many of them low-income women and women of color—are constructing solutions that address the immediate and long-term needs of their families and communities, and establish protocol that should immediately be incorporated into a bipartisan national agenda?

Surveying the news alone is demoralizing—and not because of the devastation reported in its pages, a worry that may be influencing editors’ decisions to avoid consistent, probing coverage of the disaster’s lasting impact. No, it’s the absence of devastation. And the voices of those most affected by the storms. In looking for articles on-line today, with Vicki’s (of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance) personal account of government neglect and horrendously inadequate FEMA housing heavy on my mind (see Elizabeth Hines’ post below), I searched for my own outrage mirrored in the news, for Vicki’s story, and thousands of others like hers, mirrored in the headlines. I don’t have to tell you that search was in vain…

But to end on a positive note: Ms. Foundation Katrina Women’s Response Fund grantees, Ms. Foundation staff, and the media-justice trainers of the People's Production House are here to do our best to change this. The radio-training participants—powerful, community-based women and youth activists—will do what they’ve been doing the last two years and more: take the microphone by the hand and insist that their voices be heard!

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