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Katrina Aftermath Coverage: Where's the Big Picture?

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He was speaking over a cellular telephone connection, sizing up story ideas, juggling broadcast priorities and taping up a broken window all at the same time.

Still, NBC anchor Brian Williams found time to call me, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding it brought had devastated New Orleans before a national audience, certain that the destruction and suffering we all had witnessed would bring important changes.

"If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we've failed," said Williams last September, speaking by cell phone from the city.

"We're going to be talking about this in some way for the rest of my lifetime and yours," he added, certain that the debacle of delayed relief and starving in the streets would kick off a new national dialogue on race, class and poverty in America. "I think my children will have children before this issue is over. I think this -- like it or not -- This will color our debates...color our coversations on these larger issues for a long time."

At the time, Williams expected to craft a prime-time special, perhaps two hours long, to cover all the issues. He got a 30-minute documentary which aired on an NBC Universal-owned cable network, the Sundance Channel.

Indeed, as the media world turns its eyes to New Orleans this week, covering the twin events of the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras and the six-month anniversary of the storm which nearly destroyed the city, it is painfully obvious that this story has become a massive tale of specific government failure and efforts to rebuild.

Every major TV network will anchor its evening newscasts from the Big Easy today and tomorrow; NPR's All Things Considered will be there all week; many other reporters, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, have already gone there to continue covering the story which helped make national reputations. There will be lots of stories about individual suffering, government incompetence and the struggle to bring back historic, ravaged areas (CNN is even making its online service, Pipeline, free for one day tomorrow so cybersurfers can watch Mardi Gras)

But in all this coverage, that larger national dialogue -- the one where the nation re-examines issues of poverty, race and class in America, aided by strong journalism -- hasn't really happened.

Here's a few thoughts about why, from people who should know.

Jim Amoss, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper: "I think it hasn't happened on a national basis, mainly because it's not a topic by and large people are comfortable with. It has to be forced on them. Once the dire circumstances go away, so does most people's willingness to have the conversation. In New Orleans, it is or will be happening, in part, because the city has to be reinvented...and all those issues are wrapped up in race."

Michele Norris, co-anchor, National Public Radio's All Things Considered: "There are reporters chipping away at these issues, but it hasn't sparked this big thematic debate that we saw around poverty in 1968. More than anything else, that came out of political leadership. Hearings on the issue. Bobby Kennedy taking a bipartisan group of senators into the South....Many reporters have talked about the epiphanies they've had. I think that story will live inside them. And it may change the way they look at the politics of poverty and the conditions of poverty. You may see the coverage change in more subtle ways based on what reporters have seen."

Andrew Tyndall, network news analyst: "You'd have to say the majority of the coverage....is still on the level of human interest and focusing on the evacuees themselves, rather than on the underlying issues. There's no evidence that there's any increase in (network news) coverage, even by NBC, on the other issues -- urban policy, poverty, race relations, coastal environmental policy, including wetlands preservation and global warming, and energy conservation...In the abscence of news, all of this coverage has to be at the level of feature coverage."

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director, The Project for Excellence in Journalism: "I think for history to have taken on a meaning about race and class and probably economic policy, that would have required some eloquent and continuing arguments by opponents of the Bush administration, and opponents of the Republican party. The Democrats weren't up to that...(and) there was enough blame to go around here....The first task of the press after Katrina was to find out what went wrong and what's happening on the ground now. The issue of what's to be done from here, even now, is probably beyond the skill set of the press. What we're talking about now, trying to figure out in a larger sense what does this mean -- What did it expose about us as a country? -- That's pretty high-order work. In the end, that comes down to "What is the American public ready to believe?"'

Jonathan Alter, columnist, author and pundit, Newsweek magazine and NBC News: "In some ways, it's another missed opportunity of the Bush presidency. In the same way that after 9/11 he had a way to rally and unify the country, after Katrina, he had the same opportunity. And in both cases, he squandered it... I do think that's what newspapers, magazines and TV networks don't recognize: there's a great interest in this. It was one of those television moments; kind of like when the dogs and fire hydrants were turned on the civil rights demostrators...(But) the images alone don't bring change."

Jane Knitzer, executive director, National Center for Children in Poverty: "You ask why (no national dialogue)...we puzzle over that a lot. 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 priviledge the wealthy."