Howard Kurtz returns with a Media Notes column that welcomes a focus on race in Hurricane Katrina coverage--it turns out most of the victims of the disaster in New Orleans were black and poor.
Because, you know, we couldn't see that.
He also cheers reporters telling us how they really they feel, which works as long as you have the same feelings--something I'll get to later.
But first things first.
After praising the displacement of "absurdly hyped melodramas like those of Natalee Holloway or Terri Schiavo," Kurtz says:
But there were striking flaws in the coverage as well. For the first three days, few journalists mentioned what the pictures made glaringly obvious: that most of the victims of the flooding were poor and black...
The first to blow the whistle on the initially color-blind coverage was Slate media columnist Jack Shafer, who wrote Wednesday: "Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can't make an error without destroying careers. That's a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of [the] anchors could have asked a reporter, 'Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we're seeing are African-American?' "
I saw that column too, on a day when the city was in full chaos mode with no relief in sight; it seemed an odd time to reignite a debate over race and poverty but hey, we amuse ourselves in our own ways. New Orleans is a majority-black city, and the national tendency for black Americans to be disproportionately poor not only is met but exceeded there. The city's government (led by black Mayor Ray Nagin, if you really want to focus on race) abandoned its poor citizens to fend for themselves, so the wonder of Shafer's discovery escapes me.
Somehow a debate between say Thomas Sowell and Charles Rangel over the causes of black poverty wasn't in the top one hundred things I wanted to know as a city drowned while rescuers dodged bullets and flames.
Kurtz also loves how reporters hectored public officials. There's a time for hectoring, but the vignettes Kurtz quotes covered a wide variety of cases that don't compare well to one another and don't necessarily reflect well on the reporters involved:
On television, the frustration boiled over at different times. Fox's Shepard Smith shouted questions at a cop who refused to answer, saying: "What are you going to do with all these people? When is help coming for these people? Is there going to be help? I mean, they're very thirsty. Do you have any idea yet? Nothing? Officer?"
I saw that clip live, and kudos to a brave Shepard Smith for charging into the disaster. But the cop he was chasing was obviously entirely out of the loop and in no position to answer any of Smith's questions. "I have no freakin' idea" wouldn't have improved upon the cop's weary retreat from the reporter.
I didn't see the Scarborough comment Kurtz refers to, but I've read Anderson Cooper's grilling of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and the version Kurtz provides is (probably necessarily) clipped. Here's a fuller treatment:
LANDRIEU: Anderson, tonight, I don't know if you've heard -- maybe you all have announced it -- but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.
COOPER: Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
And when they hear politicians slap -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.
I haven't heard that because I've been seeing dead bodies... Well, he had, there's no arguing it, despite the transparent grandstanding, but there's a problem with reporters openly becoming advocates: They lose their ability to remain honest brokers. Maybe it's part of the new age that mainstream news organizations are becoming more brazen about promoting ideas they used to pretend to treat dispassionately. Maybe CNN sees itself more clearly as the liberal anti-Fox network; Mary Landrieu's Democratic party affiliation notwithstanding, most of the commentary I heard on CNN over the weekend was frankly critical of Bush and you'd never know that New Orleans had a Democratic Mayor (though I can't quite recall his race. Creole?)
And while I can't take exception to Kurtz's relief at a break from saturation coverage of "missing white girls," he grinded a gear by lumping together that kind of coverage and the Terri Schiavo case as another "absurdly hyped melodrama." A lot of us thought Schiavo's death was an inexcusable case of malevolent neglect--a slow-motion crisis that eventually could reach into millions of American homes.
And many others didn't.
And that's why hoping for more "passion" from reporters is a Pandora's box. Its value depends on what you think we should be passionate about.