I've been talking to a few people about the Katrina aftermath. At the same time, I've been reading an essay by Neal Stephenson about operating systems that has one portion that seems appropriate to what is going on in the media in their Katrina coverage. Stephenson talks about how American culture has evolved from a command line culture to an GUI culture. What he is talking about--and I am definitely going to stretch it a bit here--is the fact that as our culture has become more information concentrated we have sought out and conditioned ourselves to provide shortcuts to everything from dealing with computers to learning (Kids can't learn the old way--they get too bored! Give them learning activities to make it fun!) to how we use entertainment as a surrogate for real experience. So when something like Katrina comes along, the media presents it to us as if it were The Day After Tomorrow or Volcano or something churned out of Hollywood. It isn't a real experience anymore, but a scripted event where the audience expects things to follow a certain path to an uplifting, if not happy, ending.
Obviously, conflict occurs when CNN or Fox can't get the kind of story it wants. The omens were bad for this fairytale scenario early on. Fox caught a New Orleans man walking his dog early on as the storm was approaching. When asked why he was still there, instead of some courageous words about standing tough, Shepard Smith got a little spicey NOLA response.
Since then, the coverage has veered from tragic to uplifting to violent. Sounds like good Hollywood fluff, right? Keep your eyes glued--what's going to happen next? But there are some subtextual things not being talked about as well.
Here's a quote from Jack Shafer, Slate's resident media crank/voice of reason:
But we aren't one united race, we aren't one united class, and Katrina didn't hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians—and perhaps black Mississippians—suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they're racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn't pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, "Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?"
Lost in the Flood @ Slate
Boing Boing and others show how, depending on who is writing the captions, the "looters" can either be Jean Valjean or common thieves--and race definitely is a factor.
Black People Loot, White People Find @ Boing Boing
Our president's response, as with most issues that don't involve spreading his religion of democracy to those he deems in need of it, has been fairly vague. It was reported that he cut his vacation short because of Katrina, but all we get is the brilliant observation that it's going to be years before the areas affected can rebuild and that looting is bad.
Meanwhile, he's off playing guitar, still in some country boy bubble that prevents him from acting like a real leader. All the while the Superdome is starting to sound like Thunderdome--or maybe Iraq--if you take the news reports at face value. Or even if you don't. Either way it's interesting and sad to see how people react to survive when their basic necessities are taken away. (I don't want to diminish the horrible things that are going on in Louisiana, Mississippi, and the FLA, but parts of Iraq--including Baghdad--have been without stable water and electricity for over TWO YEARS now!)
To add to the frustrating "othering" that has gone on post-Katrina is the cynical throw away jab that I've heard from a few people--that "at least this happened in Red States." First of all, doesn't everyone know that this Red-Blue mentality is just the kind of thinking that people who want voters to be neatly categorized into boxes want you to spread? That way no issue is ever really discussed, it's just thrown into a Red or a Blue box so that Americans don't have to think beyond what's on TV tonight. Secondly, how callous are you that you would even make someone so different from you based on their voting habits that you can no longer see beyond your own political views to see them as human beings. On the other side of the political spectrum there was one group that claimed god was punishing NOLA for hosting a gay and lesbian gathering. Congratulations to those who revel in the Red states getting hit--you're in good company!
Enough ranting. Go back and watch CNN. Shed a tear on cue, and don't think about all that stuff that is going on underneath the coverage. It might ruin the ending.