The corporate media failed New Orleans both before and after Hurricane Katrina, and it’s failing again now. The city’s economy and population are growing, but for the poorest residents, life has become harder. As the national media has descended on New Orleans, the stories of those who continue to struggle to survive have been left out.
It’s a story of systemic racism that begins long before the storm, with decades of white reporters ignoring the systemic issues that plagued the city: underfunded public schools, housing and healthcare, a lack of economic opportunity, and a corrupt police department. With some notable exceptions, the media even ignored federal responsibility for the post-storm flooding, saying the city faced a natural, not man-made, disaster.
Although Hurricane Katrina reached Category Five in the warm waters of the Gulf, the winds that hit New Orleans had descended to Category Two. But despite only needing to protect against a much weaker storm than predicted, and despite the levees having been built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to withstand a Category Three storm, the federal protection system failed and 80 percent of the city flooded.
Days went by, and as the world saw people left on rooftops and at the superdome and convention center, there was no relief and no rescue.
At first, people around the world were sympathetic to the people of New Orleans, as they watched families abandoned and suffering in the richest country on earth. But then media coverage shifted, and the people of New Orleans were called “looters” and “thugs”. The Associated Press ran a photo of a young man walking through waist-deep water with food in his arms over a caption that called him a looter, while other wire photos described white survivors as having “found” food.
Governor Kathleen Blanco called a press conference to say she had called in troops not to rescue but to invade. “They have M-16s, and they’re locked and loaded … These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” The second in command of our police department reportedly told a gathering of officers to kill at will, adding, “If you can sleep with it, do it.” Police killed at least four unarmed Black civilians in those days after the storm, while armed white vigilantes also roamed the streets, firing at will.
Our daily newspaper, which later won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage, mostly ignored state violence against survivors. In fact, Alex Brandon, a photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper who later went on to work for Associated Press, was forced to admit during a trial years later that he knew details about police killings that he didn’t reveal. Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan told me at the time that he saw the media as too close to the police. “They were looking for heroes,” he said. “They had a cozy relationship with the police. They got tips from the police; they were in bed with the police. It was an atmosphere of tolerance for atrocities from the police. They abdicated their responsibility to be critical in their reporting. If a few people got killed that was a small price to pay.”
Most US newsrooms were all-white until the 1950s. Many Black reporters hired in that era can name the riot that preceded their hiring, as editors realized they needed staff who could more reliably report on Black communities. But in New Orleans, which was nearly 70 percent African-American in 2005, the daily newspaper still had only a handful of reporters of color. Nationwide, most newspapers remain as white-dominated as pre-civil rights era. Identity is not the only variable of who can tell a story, but when a community is systemically under-represented in the media, it affects what stories can be told.
Leonard Moore’s book “Black Rage in New Orleans” documents decades of police violence and Black protest that he found reported in the city’s black newspapers but ignored by the all-white press corps of the city’s daily papers. “The Times-Picayune and its attitude of journalistic negligence … by its refusal to cover black activism, protest and frustration, it neglected to inform most whites about the frustration that ripped through Black New Orleans,” writes Moore.
When the media chose to focus on post-storm “looting”, they ignored the very real violence Black residents were facing from police and vigilantes. That framing continued during the rebuilding of the city, as reporters depicted public housing residents as criminals, making it easier to win public approval for tearing down their homes. There were articles about displaced residents who used emergency cash payments for frivolous uses, but the media was less interested in exploring the story of racial discrimination that robbed Black residents of millions of dollars in rebuilding help.
In the years since the storm, the media continues to prioritize the voices of the privileged, and leave out those who have the least. The media racism that angered many after Katrina also helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement, as media coverage of Black victims of police violence demonized the victims in a similar way to what we saw after Katrina.
The official narrative of post-Katrina reporting played up stories of violence in public housing, ignoring stories of residents performing rescues in their own communities, and the grassroots organizing that had eliminated much of the crime in the projects. “It was by design,” says Alfred Marshall, a former resident of New Orleans public housing. “It was all to get rid of public housing. The media had been projecting that all of the murders, all of the drugs, all of the heinous things happens in the projects.”
Many reporters visiting New Orleans have celebrated the changes in the school system, which now has a higher percentage of charter schools than any other city. These changes happened after taking the school system out of local, Black, control, and firing all the teachers. News reports celebrating the changed school system in New Orleans often ignore the mass protests by students that complain of harsh discipline and a lack of role models. It ignores the stories of special needs students, who were not served by the new system. It ignores the massive deployment of police against African-American students.
Today, much of the national media is hailing the city’s “resilience”. They celebrate a rising economy and improving infrastructure. But as civil rights attorney Tracie Washington has said, “I’m not resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ you can do something else to me.”
Ten years after the devastation of New Orleans, there is good news to report on here, but it’s not the deceptive reports pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu about charter schools and reduced crime and bike paths. It’s the success of community organizing, which has led real resistance to the neoliberal “reforms” pushed on the city, and won real victories, such as legal protections for immigrant workers, federal oversight of the corrupt police department, and more job opportunities in the reconstruction of the city set-aside for local workers.
During the commemorations of this Katrina anniversary, thousands of residents will be taking the streets. They will be participating in artistic responses to the displacement, a mass march, a tent city, and much more. This is the change, from the grassroots, that will transform this city, and it’s a story you won’t find in the corporate media.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and TV producer based in New Orleans. He is a producer of The Laura Flanders Show and the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.