Thursday, September 01, 2005

Judge Ye Not...

Two things:

One, this important post from Atrios regarding the Katrina fallout:

I don't think it was that long ago that most Americans had at least some small connection to poverty. Immigrant parents and grandparents, family members who experienced the worst effects of the Great Depression, or simply growing up fairly poor. It's sad that so many people can't understand that if you live paycheck to paycheck, and you don't have any credit, it might actually be impossible for you to fill your gas tank.
Two, this fine column from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Lucia Herndon on media coverage of the disaster:

What pictures of the looters really may say

I knew it would happen - just didn't know when.

I'm talking about television news footage of looters played over and over in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Looting occurs whenever law and order breaks down as a result of disasters natural or manmade. But since the advent of television, looting seems to be a black thing. From the Watts riots in the 1960s to today, you can count on pictures of black folk hightailing it away from some store with electronic appliances, jewelry and furniture.

So while reporters from 24-hour TV news channels poured into the area almost as fast as the rising waters, I didn't have long to wait for the looting story to flash on my television screen. And even though it was expected, I found myself a little sad. But mostly mad.

We journalists have a collective knee-jerk reaction in certain situations, disasters especially. We look for people, things, quotes that will convey what we want or need to convey. But overuse of this practice leads to cliché and stereotype.

In Iowa, where tornadoes are a summertime surety, reporters are always looking for someone to say that the barn-flattening winds sounded like a freight train. At my old newspaper, the first reporter to get that quote was treated to a beer after work.

For television reporters, shots of blacks looting are quick, easy and downright expected.

New Orleans is more than a party-time tourist destination. It's a city where two-thirds of the population is black, so I'm not surprised to see black people looting. Many are poor: The median income for whites is a low $31,971; for blacks it's a subterranean $11,332. Truth is, life in the Big Easy has never been that way for many.

My question is, are blacks really the only looters? Or are they the only ones deemed worthy of camera time? Does 30 seconds of tape, rewound and replayed, tell the whole story? If pictures of looters never made it onto the air, would viewers be deprived of crucial information? Do these images advance the story of the plight of people?

Or do they play to stereotype, prejudice and fear?

Yes, stealing for profit and personal gain is wrong. And I hope those who decided to take advantage of a disaster to haul off flat-screen televisions and DVD players find no way to profit from their theft.

But during a devastating disaster like this, good, law-abiding citizens may do things they would never do normally. On TV I saw people carrying what appeared to be groceries, water, and bags of ice. With no water, power, or way out of town, it looked to me that the "looters" were trying to survive rather than upgrade their stereo system.

Before you say "I would never," just remember that's pretty easy to say and believe as we sit in our comfortable, dry, air-conditioned homes with ice, water and food a few steps away. Hunger to us means we haven't eaten in a couple of hours.

Think about it: Water's at your knees, kids are hungry and thirsty. You'd call 911 if you had a phone and if someone would answer. How could I say that if this were my situation, I wouldn't be one of those people heading out of the Wal-Mart with things that could help my family survive?

So don't draw conclusions about the ways of black people from the few moments of "de rigueur" pictures of looters. Black citizens are also among the weary, the rescuers and the rescued, the resilient, the righteous... and the dead.

They just don't get much airtime.
And finally, with all this in mind, I present the “Clueless Media Moment Of The Day” from CNN:

Wolf Blitzer was playing all-omniscient-TV-talking-head with a correspondent named Jack Cafferty, and looking over the news footage of looting in New Orleans, Blitzer condescendingly opined: “These people are so poor and so black…”

Ugh...I'm quite sure Leonard Pitts, Jr. will have something to say about this also.

By the way, Atrios and The Daily Kos have the text of what Cafferty said about Bushco's fumbling of the relief effort so far. More importantly, though, this is where to go to get or give help.


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