The Mainstream Media Keep Getting New Orleans Wrong

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Full disclosure: I'm a New Orleanian, not by birth but by adoption.   We adopted each other, New Orleans and me.  While some of my friends, who suffered no damage from the 2005 floods, used the moment to flee the city (and even to denounce it in the New York Times), I saw the moment as more akin to what you do when a stranger hideously attacks your loved one: unless you're Newt Gingrich (who famously demanded a divorce from his first wife on her cancer bed), you don't abandon her.  You cleave to her, and defend her.


As I watched New Orleans flood, from my birth home in Los Angeles, then read the dispatches appearing over the next few weeks in the remarkably reborn New Orleans Times-Picayune, a strange awareness arose.  The national media placed the "Katrina" story in a couple of handy templates: a natural disaster story, and a story of the suffering of African Americans at the hands of an unfeeling Republican administration.  What local media--also including WWL Radio and WWL and WDSU TV--reported was that flooding, and suffering, extended far and wide throughout the metropolitan area, to rich and poor neighborhoods, black and white neighborhoods, urban and suburban neighborhoods.  And they began, as October turned to November, to report results of on-the-ground investigations, by distinguished engineers working pro bono, that showed the levees hadn't been overtopped, that Katrina was not what flooded New Orleans (even though it whacked the Mississippi Gulf Coast), that the floods were triggered by more than four dozen breaches in levees and floodwalls that had been poorly designed and constructed under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  US taxpayers, in short, had paid billions over four decades to flood New Orleans.

We're almost four years on, and national media reporters still like to fly into the city, root about for a new change on the familiar story, and jet back out.  Latest example: this, from the Los Angeles Times (yes, complaining about accuracy in that paper is like regretting that skunks don't emit Chanel #5).   High up in the story, the reporter, who's doing a piece about supposed continuing controversy over whether the city's footprint should be shrunk and how that controversy is "tak(ing) on a new racial dimension", writes this:

"Immediately after the storm, many residents, often African Americans, worried that low-lying flood-ravaged neighborhoods would be left unbuilt and turned into wetlands."

Utilizing an almost Cheneyesque skill at conflation and elision, the reporter leaves in the reader's mind the notion that those "flood-ravaged neighborhoods", like the Lower Ninth Ward, are all "low-lying".  Perhaps the reporter, like so many out-of-towners, misinterprets the name of the district; in fact, the "Lower" in the name refers to the neighborhood's location on the river, downriver from the French Quarter and Garden District (the latter of which is Uptown).  In fact, many parts of the city that flooded during "Katrina" had never before flooded.  They weren't low-lying, but lying in the direct path of water unleashed by catastrophic levee breaches.

And, though New Orleans is in the midst of racial controversies, they tend to circulate around the legacy of Mayor Nagin, the battles between the new city council and the Mayor's functionaries, and the issues surrounding health-care and housing for the working poor.  

One of these days, a few years on, someone in the mainstream media--assuming it still exists--will win a Pulitzer for discovering what New Orleanians have known since August 30, 2005.  
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Harry Shearer is an actor, writer, director, musician and radio host. He is best known for his role on The Simpsons and his work on Saturday Night Live. More

Harry Shearer is an actor, writer, director, musician and radio host. He is best known for his long-running roles on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons (where he voices a stable of characters including Mr. Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Rev. Lovejoy, and Scratchy). He is also part of the comedy writing and acting ensemble responsible for the mockumentaries This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. His most recent book is the novel Not Enough Indians. He also hosts Le Show on NPR's Santa Monica affiliate.
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