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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Race Relations - Why the Katrina Reporting Matters

Conscientious parents teach personal responsibility for one’s actions as a core value. This is not a demand for perfection, but ownership of an outcome. People make mistakes, but only rarely do they cause global damage. Unfortunately, the hysteria from the Katrina aftermath is one of those rare events.

NOLA’s Times Picayune has made the first attempt to meet the personal responsibility expectation. Given that their town suffered the most image-damage, it makes sense that they would step up first – but they should not stand alone. Why, then, is the major media not running this story on its front pages?

The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) chastised “the blogosphere” last night for not embracing the “self-correcting media”, which tremulously spoke out in the form of that Times Picayune article. In an article titled MSM Outs Self; Bloggers Pounce, Edward B. Colby wrote:

“…this important example of self-scrutiny, far from drawing admiration, has attracted vituperation from that portion of the blogosphere eager, as always, to jump on what it still quaintly refers to as the MSM.”

The short answer to why this would be, from my perspective, is that it’s not loud enough, it’s not being carried widely enough – it’s just not nearly enough. NOLA.com’s journalists should be the first of many, not “the latest work of a couple of reporters doing what they're supposed to do -- setting the record straight”.

The demographics of New Orleans allowed the post-Katrina panic to be framed by race, and the effects go far beyond the tattered image of The Big Easy. While I’m sorry that publications like the ever-confounded BBC are terminally stuck in the “What’s wrong with America” loop, it’s the domestic fall-out that worries me.

For instance, yesterday’s Daily Terrorism Brief from Stratfor said in part,

“Sources report, however, that many of the communities that have seen a sudden, large influx of refugees have expressed apprehension about the possibility that the out-of-towners will constitute an undesirable or dangerous element, especially in light of the looting that gripped New Orleans immediately following the disaster. This concern is being exacerbated by the numerous white-supremacy groups that are spreading negative rumors about refugees and posting racist rhetoric on their Web sites.”

The universal horror and outrage has led to scrutiny of the criminal records of the evacuees – an astounding step - spurred by fear and suspicion of anyone associated with the Superdome / Convention Center havoc. I’m certain the white supremacists are not going to help an unwitting and media-led audience understand the culture of poverty – much less investigate why a new environment may allow the evacuees to break the trend. This comment from one of my own articles is a great example.

The panic and hysteria also led (as always) to that vastly over-played trump card – race – by anybody standing near a microphone or a camera. No matter how hard writers have tried to separate the racial component (myself included), it’s an impossible tide to turn...because people believe the media.

As Earl Hutchinson wrote in his article “Playing the Katrina Race Card”,

"The heavy handed rush to openly or subtly to paint the tragedy of New Orleans as yet another terrible example of the black-white divide in America does a horrible disservice to the poor and needy that are suffering. Admittedly a majority of them are black, but many of the victims are white too. This stirs fear, anger, and latent racism in many whites. It stirs the same fear anger, and racial antipathies among many blacks."

This is why at least one blogger (me) is pretty unimpressed so far with the low-key and hesitant self-examination to date. If MSM = "Mainstream Media", then NOLA.com is the minor leagues. Until the major players are willing to give as much attention to their role in exacerbating the situation, it's premature to sanctimoniously claim that the MSM has “self-corrected”.