Sunday, May 07, 2006

A National Disgrace

Embarassed by the war in Iraq, their president's basement-dwelling poll numbers, and by their party's leadership generally, the right wing intelligencia is demanding we all go see United 93 so that we make sure we don't ever forget about 9-11 and that maybe we'll somehow forget about everything else.

Like Katrina.

Last week I wrote that any Democrat worth his salt should make the repeal of last year's Bankruptcy "reform" bill a centerpiece of his or her 2006 congressional or 2008 presidential campaign.

The 2008 hopefuls might also want to point their fellow Americans' attention to the continuing national disgrace that is the Gulf area devastated by last year's hurricanes. Yes, I know, Katrina is so last year, there are no Missing White Women, why should we care? Because apparently the place is still a disaster, Katrina's dead bodies are still being found, and even establishment journalists like Howie Kurtz are pissed.

I know we've all given the guy a hard time for his Republican bias, but this article in today's Post is blistering:

Like many Americans, I've followed the Katrina story closely, but then tuned out for days when other news or the daily strains of life intervened. After eight months you assume they must be making some progress. Downtown and the French Quarter basically look fine; the worst damage by now must be limited to a few of the hardest-hit areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

But then you come here and see the devastation up close, and discover that things are far worse than you imagined. And you realize that, despite the millions of words and pictures devoted to the hurricane's aftermath, the normal rules of writing, photography and broadcasting are just not equal to the task.


It is a depressing story, hardly a ratings grabber. It is like Iraq, day after day of numbing sameness: violence and suicide bombs there, a frozen-in-time lack of recovery here. Reporters like to cover tangible issues -- the battle over small-business loans, the race to buttress the levees, the failures of FEMA, the campaign for mayor, the first post-storm Mardi Gras. Everyone knows what happened to New Orleans; it is not new news.

But it is still news, if news is defined as a catastrophic event that alters a community and a country forever. (NBC News Anchor Brian) Williams, dismissing some viewer complaints and nasty e-mail saying that he devotes too much air time to this city's struggles, stays on the case, as do a handful of other television and print journalists.

CNN's Anderson Cooper has been here several times, and ABC maintains a bureau for rotating correspondents. Major newspapers have devoted plenty of resources to the region. Since Jan. 1, the New York Times has run more than 110 news stories on New Orleans, the Los Angeles Times about 90, The Washington Post about 75, dissecting the current state of hospitals, schools, housing, even Cajun cooking and jazz.

But can anyone really say that New Orleans remains an urgent, top-of-the-newscast issue, that the recent coverage captures the raw emotion of a crisis that continues unabated? By and large, the plight of this crippled city seems to have become background noise.

Reporters by trade parachute into disaster zones, steeling themselves against sadness. You start out as a young scribe chasing car accidents and then graduate to plane crashes. Later you might find yourself in Oklahoma City or in Lower Manhattan, trying to chronicle the aftermath of a terrorist attack, or in Bosnia or Baghdad, filing dispatches about military conflicts. Then the war ends, the community rebuilds, and you move on. Collectively, we all move on.

That is not possible in New Orleans. Yes, many people are tired of the Katrina saga. In a world filled with problems large and small, in a business that gravitates toward the latest buzz, the up-to-the-minute news flash, that's easy to grasp. If people saw what I saw, however, they would understand why journalism's work here is not done -- not by a long shot.

No, journalism's job is not done there, despite the demands by many of the country's white middle-class for the media and political establishments to focus on something else, anything else (like movies about 9-11). And if journalism's job isn't done down there, than neither can be any 2008 prospective Democratic contender's. Feingold, HRC, Bayh, Biden, Warner, you want some attention, you want to appear "authentic", you want to show leadership, camp out in the land time forgot. Save all the money you would have originally used to run TV ads or hire consultants and orchestrate a "convention", and just set up shop along the Gulf Coast. Do it in protest, demand answers and action. Will the country and public respond to the call? I don't know. Probably not. But leadership is as leadership does. If you don't lead, you don't deserve to be president, and the country will deserve whatever imitation of leadership it gets.

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