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Katrina, Conservative Myth-Making and the Media

By Tim Wise  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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During the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many a voice praised the media for its supposedly aggressive coverage. The fact that Anderson Cooper cried on camera, or that Geraldo evinced outrage (imagine that), or that even Fox's Shepard Smith waxed indignant at the suffering in the streets, was taken as evidence of some newfound courage on the part of the press.

Standing up to FEMA's Mike Brown, and making him appear every bit as incompetent as he was -- a task about as difficult as making Paris Hilton look underfed -- inspired plaudits for any number of network anchors and reporters in the field. So too, Cooper's upbraiding of an utterly hapless Mary Landrieu, she of the U.S. Senate, just to show that both parties were fair game in this brave new world of independent media, no longer willing to be led around by the neck on a leash, as it had been with, say, Iraq, for starters.

But just as surely as the media went after those in positions of power, and sought to expose them as witless in all respects, it was even more adept at framing (pun very much intended) low-income black folks in the streets of New Orleans as a collection of deviant criminals. In other words, the more things changed, the more they ultimately stayed the same, with the press presenting images of the desperate and left behind that reinforce negative and racist stereotypes, to the utter exclusion of accuracy and fair-mindedness.

Case in point, the constant repetition of the same five or six video loops of so-called looters. The fact that most of these were taking water, food and medicine didn't seem to matter to camerapersons or, ultimately, a viewing public quick to condemn what they saw. That the relative paucity of such video suggests theft wasn't particularly representative of the crowds on Canal Street -- after all, if looting had been that common, there would have been more than the same half-dozen clips to present -- also mattered not it appears.

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An even better case in point, the repetition of unfounded rumors -- later proven false -- to the effect that Children's Hospital had been raided by drug addicts looking for a fix; or that gang rapes were occurring in the Superdome or Convention Center, or that babies were being molested and then having their throats slit, only to be stuffed like trash in abandoned freezers and garbage cans. False, false and false; and for none of these stories had there ever been a first hand witness who had actually seen any of the supposed carnage taking place.

Or consider the reports of thugs shooting on first aid helicopters: fact is, there are no first hand witnesses who claim they saw anyone shoot at the helicopters, as if hoping to bring them down or harm relief workers. Rather, those who were actually there, and saw the gunfire in question, report that it was intended to get the attention of the helicopters, which seemed to be repeatedly passing people by, looking at the catastrophic conditions, but refusing to land and save people in most instances. Perhaps those in the air didn't see those on the ground? Or perhaps they didn't understand the magnitude of the suffering below them? Either way, the gunfire was a desperate attempt to get people to take things seriously and do their jobs: perhaps not the best way to get attention, but hardly the act of mindless, violent thugs aiming indiscriminately at everyone in sight, as reports made it seem.

Yet the media, feeling no need to find witnesses or to verify claims of black deviance (because, after all, what's not to believe?) simply went along. The result? Rescue efforts were delayed because rescue workers had been scared for their lives by a press that led them to think New Orleans was a war zone; the Governor and Mayor actually told law enforcement to stop saving lives and start arresting and shooting lawbreakers on sight; and the public, which rarely needs reasons to think the worst of poor black people, found its stereotypes confirmed. Not only whites, it should be pointed out, but black folks too, like Mayor Nagin and his crony police chief Eddie Compass, both of whom apparently think so little of their own people that they too assumed the stories were true, in spite of no evidence, and repeated the charges on national TV.

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Within just a few days, urban legends began zipping around the Internet, in the form of e-mails recounting utterly fabricated events, but all of them -- however false -- fit perfectly within the narrative developed by the media during the catastrophe.

First there was the one about the crack dealer who refused to be evacuated to a hospital because he wouldn't be able to sell his wares there; then there was the one about the thugs (black and poor of course) who destroyed a rest area on the Louisiana/Texas border, during a stop on the way to Houston, even urinating on the walls to show their disregard for civilized norms of behavior; then there was the one from the guy claiming to have volunteered at the Astrodome to feed and help evacuees, all to be shocked by how ungrateful they were--supposedly demanding beer, liquor, cigarettes and four-star restaurant meals. That hundreds of others refuted these nonsensical claims, and noted how unbelievably gracious the evacuees had been did nothing to damper the enthusiasm with which the lies were circulated.

And in each case, the authors of these fantasies made sure to throw in something about how racist the blacks were (calling white aid workers "crackers" and "honkies" of course), and ending with the admonition that those displaced by Katrina deserved no respect or assistance, seeing as how they were a bunch of spoiled brats who should be left to their own devices. In other words, no need to be compassionate, no need to contribute to relief funds, and certainly no need to challenge one's already negative views towards the kinds of people left behind in the flood. They had, ultimately, gotten what they deserved.

Though the mainstream media hadn't created these phony and vicious stories (and indeed, one has to wonder what kind of evil mind and heart would have done so), it is certainly true that they created the conditions that made such tripe believable to a lot of people. Had the media focused less on looters and supposed gang raping murderers, and more on the efforts by thousands to help one another in the midst of hellish conditions -- stories that are only trickling out in the corporate press, but which those who lived through them have been trying to get told via their own accounts from the flood zone -- it would have been impossible for such vile trash as this to have gained traction. But once the climate had been created and the frame set -- one that said, these are bad people, who do bad things -- it took no effort at all for racists to concoct lies and peddle those to a willing and gullible public that never seems to challenge stories of black perfidy, so easily do they fit within their pre-existing racist biases in the first place.

Which brings us to the other big lie told about the poor in New Orleans: one that has yet to be addressed in the media, despite how easily it can be disproved by a mere five minutes worth of research. It is one repeated daily for the past eight weeks by conservative talk show hosts and columnists, and one to which I am exposed many times a day in my email inbox, thanks to the efforts of right wing louts without the seeming desire to do their homework. Namely, it is the argument that the reason 130,000 poor black folks were unable to escape the flooding was because they had grown dependent on the government to save them, thanks to the "welfare state," and that was why they lacked the money and cars to get out before disaster struck.

In other words, liberal social policy had rendered the black poor unable or unwilling to work, content to collect a government check, and thus, had made them incapable of saving themselves. This lie -- and it is just that, not an exaggeration or simplification or overstatement, but a flat-out falsehood -- has been parroted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Shawn Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Charles Murray (of "Bell Curve" fame), not to mention such viciously self-loathing black conservatives as Star Parker, John McWhorter and the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, all despite the lack of evidence to sustain it, and the amazing amount of evidence, both contemporary and historical, to refute it.

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But of course the media, having long ago decided not to challenge the mainstream public's view of folks on welfare -- and indeed to collaborate with the framing of such persons by politicians of both major parties -- has done nothing to set the record straight, suggesting either that they are incredibly inept at research, or just as incredibly craven in their attitudes towards the poorest of this nation's citizens.

But the facts, however unsettling they may be for conservative mythmakers, are clear.

To begin with, as of 2004, according to the Census Bureau, there were only 4600 households in all of New Orleans receiving cash welfare from the nation's principal aid program, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC). That is not a misprint: 4600 out of a total of 130,000 households in the black community alone. Which means that even if every welfare receiving household in Orleans Parish had been black (which was not in fact the case), this would have represented only a little more than four percent of black households in the city.

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