Friday, October 21, 2005

Race, class, poverty, and Katrina

On Thursday night I was a participant on a panel, organized by the SUNY Geneseo Philosophy Club, discussing "Race, Class & Poverty: Reflections on Katrina". I've reproduced my opening statement below, since it pretty effectively sums up my ideas and insights - such as they are - on how Katrina and its aftermath have impacted the media and the mediated national debate in America.

(Btw: The debate is also available on the web (or as a podcast) at the SUNY Geneseo American Democracy Project web site, at

    Some seven weeks on from the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, how are we to make sense of the media’s role in the disaster visited on the Gulf Coast?

    I'd like to tackle this at two levels. First a brief word on the “tactical” level, on the media’s day-to-day response, and then some more “strategic” comments about the broader implications of this catastrophe from a communication perspective.

    First, at the tactical level, the dominant discourse remains that of a media success story. We’re reminded again just how crucial the mainstream news media are at times of national crisis, illuminating the scale of the tragedy, highlighting race and class inequities, aggressively bringing government officials to book, and all that. You probably remember watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper railing against government inaction. But then all the networks were getting into the act - even FOX, to their credit. Inevitably, though there’s also a strain of criticism against the MSM. Some critics now charge the news media in fact complicated the relief effort. Especially in the crucial early days, the media broadcast unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo—especially in New Orleans—of mass deaths, rape, pillaging, and anarchy, creating a climate of fear and suspicion that hampered rescuers. And then there is the criticism that journalists became too angry, too wrapped up in the story, and lost critical perspective. So what’s the truth of the matter? Suffice to say for now that the media’s intense spotlight can always be a force either for good or for ill—or even both concurrently.

    But I’d like to move on and discuss the issue at the broader level – of whether, and how, Hurricane Katrina, as a catastrophic event, can provide the media with an opening to give serious consideration to issues such as poverty, race, and class. My answer isn’t simple. We really have to tackle it in three parts: In the short term, yes, absolutely, we’ve had a national debate of sorts, and that’s great; in the medium term, however no, not so much, I think; but in the longer term . . . maybe. I'll go into each of these in more detail.

    First, the short-term answer: That’s the easiest. Yes, it’s clear that the hurricane got all of us talking about these crucial issues – sparking off a large-scale debate propelled by the seemingly revitalized news media that provided fuel for, and then amplified, the mood of national outrage at the scenes emanating from the New Orleans Superdome and the Convention Center. And we all remember those images. Suddenly reporters seemed emboldened to ask tough questions—and even tough follow-up questions—to those in power. Talking Heads, sources in the government and other powerful institutions seemed to forget their talking points, or were forced off them, and actually started talking to one another, rather than just battering lines of the day against each other. After all they, and we, were all trying at the same time to make sense of what was going on.

    For a precious few days or weeks, we actually had something like a real national conversation about race, class, and poverty in America—a conversation that culminated in President Bush’s extraordinary prime-time speech from New Orleans’ Jackson Square last month, where he proclaimed to the nation that “poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality." Stirring words, right? A stirring moment in history, or so it seemed.

    Yet already, it feels as if the moment is passing, the debate showing signs of closing down, as we face renewed concern about the budget deficit and a push for across-the-board cutbacks in government programs that benefit the poor. Powerful forces of the status quo—both within media corporations themselves and from their sources and benefactors in government—are reestablishing themselves. The news isn’t all bad, but the trend seems to be quietly reversing.

    And in the political realm, there is little in the way of a concerted effort by anyone to provide a genuine attempt to address the issues raised by Katrina. As the Bush administration comes under fire from all sides for its Iraq policy, rising gas prices, the Harriet Miers nomination, and the continuing outrage over the Katrina response, Republican inertia seems to be taking over, while Democrats seem happy to sit back and watch the Republicans self-destruct – or so they hope. But this is bad, because powerful institutional voices making powerful, resonant and quoteworthy statements are the very fuel which drives any media debate—and remember, this is the only kind of debate we the public, are privy to, might even have a say in. This is how national policy and government agendas are influenced. So it’s important to all of us! The question is: In the absence of vigorous critical input, can the media keep the discussion front and center?

    In the medium term, I’m afraid, the answer is probably no. The trouble is, the news media—in fact, all commercial MSM, do NOT like change or disruption to normal service. Now the media are not a monolithic entity, but most media organizations in the U.S. are inherently conservative, status quo institutions within the commercial paradigm. They like to be able to plan ahead, they don’t like to rock the boat, they tend to follow the path of least resistance, and they fall back on tried and trusted methods whenever possible, as long as these methods guarantee the media’s continuing obscenely high profit margins – of 20, 30, even 40 percent. Just think about how “samey” and prepackaged so many media products look, sound, and feel – whether it’s network sitcoms, Hollywood blockbusters, late night talk shows, local TV news, cable news, . . .. This all emerges from the countless reapplications of tried and trusted formulas. And as with news, so with all other media products. It takes a lot to shift the MSM from their formulaic mindset, even temporarily.

    And here’s the thing: It’s only when a rare, short, sharp, truly catastrophic event—a 9/11 or a Katrina—comes along that the formulas and rule books are thrown away, at least for a while. Newsmakers have to fly by the seat of their pants, and even act like human beings. That’s when things get interesting. Now I don’t mean to universally slam all media news norms and routines – some are very necessary – but essentially, I’m saying, that in the current media environment, the extent to which we had a “real” media debate during and after Katrina is the extent to which the whole structure of news norms and media-source relations was temporarily torn down, forced into an ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants posture. Now that “packaged” structure is getting back up and running again—that is, getting the right sources back on their talking points, turning the cameras and microphones away from the poor and destitute and back to the rich and powerful, getting Anderson Cooper back in his studio. Normal service is, unfortunately, being resumed . . . well almost.

    That brings me to the long term. Is there any hope for Katrina spurring a reinvigorated and ongoing debate about poverty through the media? Well, I think yes there is, but it probably won’t happen overnight, and it definitely won’t emerge independently from the media alone. Rather it’s a process that is unpredictable, and could take years to manifest.

    And it’s a process that’s heavily dependent on broader political shifts (e.g., a reinvigorated Democrat Party and progressive movement – something I see little evidence of today). Or it could be a new strain of religiously based, genuinely compassionate conservatism. And government policy on the media has got to change as well (especially over media ownership rules and public service obligations). But essentially, new ideas for changes have to emerge from outside the MSM, yet come from sources that the media approve of and are willing to select, “legitimize,” and then amplify to the nation.

    So to pull this all together: When Katrina opened a window of debate about issues that are typically avoided in the MSM, it really did two things. It reminded media organizations of their often-forgotten social responsibility to not only entertain consumers, but also to inform citizens of issues of importance in society. And, perhaps more importantly, it broke a status quo logjam that had, especially since 9/11, placed the news media in an exceptionally quiescent position, unwilling to really challenge the powers-that-be. 9/11 is the closest analogue here because it was the last catastrophic event that temporarily blew away the news media’s operating structure, and when that structure was eventually reestablished, it was done in a way that greatly favored the Bush administration’s view of the world—in other words, a new dominant, super-patriotic “war on terrorism” frame (with consequences that are now all too familiar to us).

    We may now, at last, be seeing, at least, a revision of that frame. Katrina has given the MSM somewhat greater license to criticize the government across the board, to address questions of corruption, cronyism, the economy, Iraq, . . . all issues that, not coincidentally, have led to a sharp drop in President Bush’s opinion poll ratings. (and yes, there's a clear link between lower public support for an administration and an emboldened news media.) But if that momentum is to be maintained and extended to consistently tackle race, class and poverty as key national issues, it requires renewed political impetus from powerful and legitimated sources—frankly, it probably awaits the next Presidential election cycle, and perhaps a John Edwards or a Barack Obama to take a leading role. The media can’t and won’t keep doing it on their own in the meantime. Remember, that would mean the news media taking a harder road. And the news media really do not want to take the harder road, and won’t do it unless constantly pushed by powerful events and powerful individuals. Yes, the door’s been opened and they’ve been given a good hard shove. But it’s going to take a lot more effort and a long time for a real difference to be felt. And the impact will never be as profound as some hope. Maybe in five or 10 years people will look back on Hurricane Katrina as being the Big Event that changed the national conversation. But you can’t count on that. You can only hope for it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, excellent piece on what we have been discussing in class, I wish I lived in Geneseo to be able to attend such events, but finances preclude return trips to see them (thanks oil policy).

I don't want to sound like a Dad, but I hope that students use these talks and other seminars to broaden their understanding of the world they are headed to and will be handed off by the generation in power. Remember, your generation is affected by today’s decisions for years and you have little but voting power to have an impact until you get older and you see how the laws of human nature change people. Then the leaders of your generation will be corrupted and screw it up for your kids. Only by getting a handle on how true power works against the laws of human nature will you get a grasp of this human phenomenon.

Secondly, well secondly, I don’t want to sound like Dr. Negative, I’m not---life is a great adventure we are going through and there is always the chance that we as humans will get it right finally, but it does take an educated population with a commitment to break cycles of behavior. We continue to come to crossroads that test us as a society and we are again at such a point. So, keep your eyes and minds open and never forget that those of us at the fifty plus mark on this planet are counting on you to pay our Social Security benefits.


“Life, loathe it or ignore it, you can’t like it.” Marvin

10/22/2005 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this blog entry and agree with everything stated. I believe that the media did its duty of informing the public of the the events during and after Hurricane Katrina that occured. This story was a very popular converstaion piece in the short term time period. Media argued that the government had not done enough, and citizens felt sympathy for those effected by the Hurricane. It was sad to see that race and poverty were large factors associated with Katrina in that the majority of people that suffered the most from the storm were lower class African Americans. As time wore on however, the media started to fade away from the Story of Katrina. Reporters returned to their studios to report about new developments such as the nomination of Harriet Meyer, gas prices, and the War in Iraq. Due to the mass destruction of Katrina, I do believe the stroy will resurface in the future, in which people will discuss both mother nature's destruction as well as the relationship between the storm,race, and poverty.

Jeff Beadnell

10/24/2005 11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, I'm very sorry I couldn't attend this discussion; I was really looking forward to it.

Secondly, I'd like to say that this was a very well done blog. I, like Jeff and DJ, thought this entry was interesting, very well stated and brought together.

Thirdly, I'd like to add a few insights: I've been taking a sociology class on Race and Ethnicity, and we’ve discussed factors that contributed to the correlation between poverty and race. Obviously, slavery and segregation have had a major impact on black history. Other influences such as residential segregation and societal racism that occurred after these “mile markers” of black history also play a large role in perceptions. I think too often the media ignore underlying issues that seem extraneous for the most part but influence current policies and perceptions within our society. As we discussed in class, much of the time we see black males on the news and associate them with violence and destructive behavior, but do we question what socioeconomic conditions put them there? Not really. Our discussion, therefore, of Katrina and her aftermath maybe should not be focused so much on what went wrong, but what we need to do to fix these underlying issues in the future.
-Libby Donaldson

10/24/2005 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the others, I also enjoyed this blog entry. I think hurricane Katrina, although profusely destructive and devastating, brought to light many issues in this country that many had been ignoring or some that were continuously "swept under the rug". Race and poverty in the south is obviously the main issue that we began to take note of from this tragedy. Unfortunately,on the short notice that was given to evacuate, many of the citizens that lacked the resources to get out of Louisiana were black and living in poverty. As many government officials and people in high places of authority knew this, I think that more should have been done to evacuate or accomodate to these people so they could safely get through the storm. Because of Katrina, the issue has arisen in our country and has been introduced to many who were unaware of it. Last, the broadcast of Kanye West saying "George Bush doesn't care about black people" should be forever present in our minds that this issue is still ever present in our country, and is something we need to continue to change.

Maren MacDonald

10/26/2005 11:05 PM  
Blogger colleen Wayne said...

Katrina and 9/11 have both been very devistating events in our society. I agree that for Katrina aid was slow coming and it was the hardest on the poor because they did not have to means to get out soon enough. It is very sad and upsetting that this happened. Mother nature can be very harsh at times. But I also do not believe that the main issue at hand is against the African-American population. I believe the main issue here is an economic one. Just because Bush is a republican does not mean that he is against helping people in need that are African-American. I know that I am a conservative republican and when I heard the news I felt awful for everyone there, including other races. It is not fair to say that George Bush "doesn't care about black people".

10/27/2005 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the others stated above, this is an extremely well-written entry. I agree with practically every aspect that you touch on. What is the most interesting is how you break it down into 3 parts, short-term, middle, and long-term. More specifically, it definitely did open up the eyes of many Americans in how certain classes were being treated. Furthermore, middle and long-term sort of blend together in that it is going to be a very long process before, if any, change is actually going to occur in the United States. Hopefully, people will not forget this crisis anytime soon and remember and take with them the lessons that were clearly displayed on the media. The media have once again stepped into the role in which they are not just entertainers, but also informers to us citizens. This has not been truly present for a while, so as you stated, is refreshing for it to be back and apparent in society.

~ Ashley Pericak

10/27/2005 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that many times the media concetrates only on the bad things of any situation by using a frame. however, we can not deni that they also opened our eyes by showing us how many poor people live down south. It is ironic how the United States is supposed to be the country of "Oportunities and equal rigts" but when this catastrophe happend,the more affected people were the poor minorities.
-Paola Rivera

10/31/2005 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your response to the media and their role in the Katrina response. After working at a local news station this past summer I share your views on the media's almost "relief" when they can return to the "normal" and "everyday" news. I worked there the day of the London bombings, and it was the first time I have seen the reporters so excited about their jobs, and ready to get out there and find information, even about an issue what was happening thousands of miles away. But when I returned the next week to my job I found us covering the same "normal" news, and packaging the same stories. I agree that I have seen this again with the decline in coverage towards the Katrina disaster. I think that in order to keep these tough issues in the mainstream reporters and journalists have to make more of an effort. No one says that it should be an easy task. More often than not journalists return to the path of least resistance, when this is their oppertunity to get things done. The audience is grasping for information, and it is the media's job to provide it. If journalists don't feel it's important to cover anymore, than sadly the American people will feel the same.

-Emily Benedict

11/01/2005 11:03 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home