In the Aftermath of Destruction:
Re-Examining the Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina
Efforts were made to show the heroic and valiant efforts of the relief workers sent by the federal government: the American Red Cross providing food, clothing, and medical care to survivors, FEMA ordering the National Guard on search and rescue missions, and images of National Guardsmen rescuing faint people from rotting buildings blared across every television screen in America.
But there was an alternative movement in action. The day after the storm, a huge group of relief workers, organized by documentary maker and author Michael Moore, had traveled to New Orleans and delivered clothing and two tons of food to Katrina victims. Moore sent out a call for aid to his mailing list and on his web site. His team arrived before federal relief and stayed throughout the
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evacuate,” the media shot back in defense, without even taking into consideration the excessive poverty in the area and the lack of vehicles amongst this disenfranchised group. Failing even to understand that public transport provisions were not made for the poor and even if it were, the poor would not be able to pay for accommodation in even the low budget motels which litter the South, the media continued to masquerade the blame-free ticket: “they were warned.” As the momentum of condemnation grew, the government began to censor all the major news channels. CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and the like, were banned from broadcasting images of bodies, citing privacy of and sensitivity toward the families, and reasoning that the sight of a family member on the news might be too painful and shocking for surviving relatives to see. Images of the atrocity were reduced to portraits of river-like streets and wrecked homes. Taking the bodies out of the equation clearly de-personified the situation. However, different images were being broadcast around the world by news agencies which were not bound by US government censorship. Images of black citizens pleading to be rescued, begging for water, often asking the question: Are we not American too?
Hurricane Katrina revealed some of the darkest realities of racism and class division in America. US Correspondent Jill A. Bolstridge examines the media’s image control and its corrupt attempts to mask the reactions of the US government in the wake of one of America’s most horrific natural and social disasters.
Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc upon the United States. It destroyed homes, businesses, property, lives and families. And in its wake it has also destroyed illusions. Illusions about class, capitalism and “The American Dream”: the dream that, through hard work and sacrifice, everyone will be given an equal chance. This dream is at the very core of American patriotism, and Katrina brought this illusion crashing to its knees. Katrina told tales of racism, classism, and injustice, tales of poverty so extreme that even reactionary conservative Americans were forced to readjust the lens through which they viewed their own society.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the US media failed to recognize the human tragedy which was unfolding and instead focused on infrastructural damage and the impact on the economy. By the time they switched focus, it was too late. Their earlier news bulletins dominated by estimates of property damage and showing total antipathy towards the suffering poor and predominantly black victims of Katrina had exposed their institutional racism and prejudice against their own citizens.
America sat and watched in disbelief for five long days while the people of New Orleans drowned and bodies floated in the streets. Twenty thousand survivors packed themselves into the Superdome, so tightly together and in such filthy unhygienic conditions, that the Reverend Jesse Jackson compared the aerial pictures broadcast across America to the image of that “below deck of a slave ship.” Those whose houses were spared, or even partially spared, took refuge in the least-drenched areas of the remains of their homes and sat, hungry and dehydrating, without plumbing or electricity or even hope of escape, waiting and praying for relief. For five long days, America waited. And watched.
The media sang this message to the world, through the voices of its TV pundits, Republican officials and a select bunch of affluent New Orleans residents. It took a little while for the democrats to assess the situation and to speak out, as they were fearful that any attack against the government at a time of national disaster may have an impact with voters. But once they found their voice, a steady chorus of condemnation began to build.
“The government has no control over natural disasters.” “They were warned.” “They were told to
effort (some members are still stationed in New Orleans and throughout Mississippi). Michael Moore kept an online journal of his and his worker’s experiences, and openly reported that the relief America was witnessing on their television screens was, in many cases, the only relief happening in those areas. Government-sponsored relief workers had conveniently set up shop in the areas receiving all the mainstream media coverage, leaving those in desolate areas to fend for themselves. Moore’s team reportedly visited these uncovered areas and provided all the relief they could to those in need. On September 12, 2005, Michael Moore discussed one of these excursions in his online journal via his web site: “I was told time and time again today by hurricane survivors that we were
the first relief that any of these people have seen yet. Fourteen days after the hurricane and still no aid brought to them from anyone except for some Veterans for Peace. Later, we were driving around and saw the first Red Cross vehicle I have seen in three days giving food and aid to people in the streets. I went over and let them know that we have been to numerous areas that they have not yet gone and a woman gave me a very ‘Bushian’ answer. ‘We're improving everyday,’ she said. I don't blame her but something needs to change on the streets of New Orleans and soon."
As if this media-control and containment of images versus reality weren’t devious enough, the media in America decided to continue its charade by following the age-old rule of a high school popularity contest: if you can’t make yourself look like a hero, demonize your opponent.
More immediate than the federal relief effort itself came the onslaught of accusations against impoverished Katrina victims. On every major news channel, images of “looters” appeared. Photos of black men wading through the floods with television sets and stereos from local electronics shops on their shoulders quickly became the dominant image of the horror in New Orleans. Reports of rape and murder from within the Superdome and of car-jackings in the surrounding areas made major headlines. When federal relief workers finally arrived, a no-tolerance policy was instituted: National Guardsman could shoot to kill any person caught “looting” in New Orleans.
According to CNN.com on August 31, 2005: “Hundreds of people were looting businesses downtown, throwing rocks through windows and hauling away goods from stores. Some looters were brazenly trying on clothes in the street. Police said the looting was happening citywide. By mid-afternoon, officers armed with automatic weapons could be seen on downtown streets, and sporadic gunfire could be heard, although the source was unclear.”
While twenty-thousand people were packed into one building, with little food or water and overflowing sewage in ninety degree weather, the media was more concerned about looters than the rescue mission. The reports of looting, car-jacking, rape and murder were the lead stories on all the major news channels. It has since been asked: Would this have been the case if these were predominantly white people abandoned? Did the media focus on incidents of looting during 9/11?
American rapper Kanye West added his voice to the criticism when he declared to the nation on live television: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He added, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, they say they’re looting; you see a white family, it says they’re looking for food.” West’s remarks were censored in later broadcasts and an NBC spokeswoman commented later that while there was a tape delay, the person in charge “was instructed to listen for a curse word, and didn’t realize (West) had gone off-script.”
Whilst this public relations hurricane was brewing, the media attempted to deflect attention from its overt racism and the government’s inertia. Story after story about victims refusing escape appeared on the news. Tales of families who refused to leave their homes or who chose to remain with their pets over their own safety filled television screens. On September 6, 2005, CNN reported: “Amid all of the hardships, the devastation and the warnings, there are still those who refuse to leave their homes in New Orleans. One man, 69-year-old John Ebanks, sits on his porch with his dog, watching the rescue boats go by. He has plenty of supplies with him, including a lot of mosquito spray. And he says he's not going anywhere.”
And now, here we are, nearly six months after the storm hit, and the victims of the hurricane are still paying a price.
Mayor Nagin’s speech regarding black pride in the rebuilding of New Orleans as a “chocolate city” was so heavily attacked by the right-wing media that he was forced to issue a nation-wide apology for his “racist comments.” Where was the media’s attack on racism in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina?
If the purpose of the media is to provide balanced, objective truth to the public, then where is the balance? Where is the objectivity? Where is the truth? Katrina is just one example of the many imbalanced stories the American public are spoon-fed on a daily basis. In a world where media and politics are impossible to tell apart, balance is almost impossible to achieve. And with big corporations financially backing major news stations, we are reminded every day of the age-old proverb: Truth ultimately becomes what the most convincing speaker says truth is.
1st February 2006
“It was their own fault!!”
Now in the aftermath