Bypassing the Easy Stories in the Big Easy
An editor and author urges out-of-town journalists to park their preconceptions at the city’s edge and be prepared to do some digging to find the news.
So it was that I found myself in a somewhat testy conversation with a colleague from a big out-of-town daily. “I’ve got my story,” he told me, as we recuperated from a Sunday afternoon at Jazz Fest, and he planned a day or two of reporting before catching a plane. “Racism,” he said.
“What about it?” I asked.
“I’m hearing it’s still a problem here.”
“And the news?”
“I’m taking the post-Katrina perspective,” he replied, “I’m doing an update.”
Hurricane Katrina inspired some terrific reporting, along with some crude lapses into myth and stereotyping that had to be atoned for in the months after the water receded. Published and broadcast mea culpas redeemed our industry. But the magic words “post-Katrina” seem to have become license for problem journalism of another kind. It’s as if reporters and editors are overawed by the backdrop of the epic storm, so much so that we can get slipshod about the foreground stories we continue to set against it. The quality and professional rigor of the “update” too often is in inverse proportion to the magnitude of the event being updated. Yes, racism persists in New Orleans, as it has at least since Reconstruction. My friend, of course, would have had no trouble digging up the requisite five quotes and three for-instances to support this kind of nut graph: “Katrina may have blown the lid off racism and poverty in America, but the flood waters did not wash these social ills away.”
But that could be said about any city in America and, frankly, when the dateline says New Orleans, we want to hog the spotlight these days. We crave media attention as our only hope for waking America out of Katrina fatigue. Does that put racism stories off limits? Not at all — nor crime, poverty, addiction nor stories about any other social ills. We would only ask for the same depth of reporting that hometown audiences would demand.
One focus of a story about race, for example, might be to explore how once racially monolithic voting blocks in the New Orleans metro area have begun to fracture along class lines. That white conservatives spurned the white liberal candidate and joined with black voters to re-elect Mayor Ray Nagin — a move some now regret — is a development to ponder. So, too, the spectacle of middle-class suburbanites — black and white — who rose as one at an annual civic luncheon earlier this year to applaud Ronnie Harris, the white mayor of suburban Gretna. Harris is the man most closely associated with the infamous decision by his constabulary to train guns on a largely black throng, abandoned by government at every level and seeking to escape the flooded city by way of a Mississippi River bridge. Ronnie Harris: defender of property rights; Ronnie Harris: no nonsense champion of law and order. Ronnie Harris: hero of the emerging black middle class?
Or better yet, given the strong Hispanic presence in the city my newspaper reporter friend hails from, how about taking a look at the intricate minuet now under way between African Americans in New Orleans and another people of color — the Latinos, who have swept into the area since the storm, flooding the job market? It’s certainly the most significant ethnic infusion since Vietnamese boat people were resettled here in the 1970’s.
If the update is to focus on crime, another popular theme, here, too, legwork will be required in place of prepackaged assumptions. New Orleans remains the violent city it has been for decades. New Orleans remains a city heavily dependent on tourism. Assuming that crime is a threat to tourism might be a self-fulfilling concern, but the linkage is misleading. To report on crime in New Orleans requires more than asking a bunch of tourists on Bourbon Street whether they’re worried about it. It requires understanding the drug trade that flourishes on the margins of the city and the particular dislocations within that trade caused by Katrina and now being worked out at gunpoint. That’s the story, and I’d advise caution in pursuit of it, as well as a bit more time than editors back home might think reasonable for a trip to New Orleans that happens to coincide with Jazz Fest or Carnival.
Katrina Anniversary Stories
The problem of an epic story becoming sanction for brain-dead updates also has been apparent during another recent addition to our seasonal calendar: Katrina anniversary stories. The throng of media that descended upon us in August 2006 is expected again in August 2007. Last season’s visual cliché was this: TV talking head standing in front of wrecked house or flipped over car in the Lower Ninth Ward. The appeal of the visual backdrop was easy enough to grasp; it was iconic, a shorthand way to say “Katrina.” So it didn’t much matter what words the reporter’s lips were forming, since the message was already sent: Katrina destruction persists. (Memo to producers: A lot of flipped over buildings have been bulldozed since the first anniversary; new backdrops will be needed.)
Much more interesting anniversary stories were those that parsed the faltering recovery process — examining what was going right and what was going wrong. As the first anniversary press corps scoured New Orleans for updates, the Superdome — an icon of disaster and human suffering during its use as a Katrina storm shelter — was about to reopen with the triumphant return of the Saints for their first regular season home game in two years. Ah, but that was precisely the problem: A repaired Superdome made for a backdrop visually indistinguishable from footage that might have been shot there in 2004 or, for that matter, in 1994, no matter how interesting it might have been to question the wisdom of prioritizing Superdome resurrection.
Ultimately, it did not take a lot of bullying to get my Jazz Fest friend to abandon the preconceptions that shaped his initial story idea and move him past interviews by phone with (white) antiracism advocates and (black) politicians, each of whom retains a vested interest in the persistence of the problem they dream of eradicating. I urged him to venture into the heart of the community and encouraged him to contact the neighborhood associations that — without much support at all from City Hall, Baton Rouge, or Washington — are doing the day-to-day work of planning and implementing New Orleans’s revival.
That the city’s revival is a biracial effort should come as no surprise. Even after the Katrina diaspora, New Orleans remains strongly Afro-centric in its culture and leadership. That racial differences can be teased out of virtually every debate also is not a surprise. This is New Orleans. But “racism” is being eclipsed by other concerns, and this is heartening. There is a city to rebuild, housing to gut, a flood defense to fortify. The Bush administration’s lackluster performance since Katrina has been called racist, and I paid my own respects to that line of reasoning in “Breach of Faith,” a book about Katrina. Perhaps race-baiting and other manifestations of the old-time religion have been muted in post-Katrina New Orleans precisely because Washington has given us a bogeyman exterior to local politics.
A city’s fate hangs in the balance, but the repercussions are wider than that. Katrina was the first real test — a colossal failure — of the Bush administration’s signature domestic achievement, the Department of Homeland Security. For those reasons, the recovery of this city deserves more than facile, preconceived and lazily executed reporting. After an ugly tussle, Louisiana has begun to win the right to tap into federal royalties from offshore oil and gas to pay for restoration of coastal marshes and other crucial measures in the fight against storm surge. But New Orleans remains hugely dependent on congressional largesse for its recovery. Congress might be hard to educate, but its best teachers are constituents throughout the country. Conveying a fresh and accurate understanding of what’s going on in New Orleans is our only hope for meaningful public policy and government support.
Jed Horne, who retired recently as a metro editor of The Times-Picayune, is the author of “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City,” published by Random House in 2006.
Around Lent, and then again in late April and early May, the nation’s press is suddenly rife with enterprise stories out of New Orleans. The mystery behind this flurry of attention isn’t hard to solve. Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (a.k.a. Jazz Fest) might not be worth a lot of ink, but they’re a lot of fun. The trick for the out-of-town reporter is to dig up a New Orleans story on the fly that justifies expensing the trip. Lately that’s been pretty easy: just do a “post-Katrina update.”