Katrina Coverage Exposes Race, Class Fault Lines

Media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have exposed huge race and class disparities among Americans. Desperate survivors at the Superdome in New Orleans, for example, were almost universally black and poor.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Images of the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately black, have dominated news coverage in the weeks since the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast. NPR's Allison Keyes begins our examination of the way race and social class may have influenced reporting and analysis of the catastrophe.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Reporters and anchors, even veterans like CNN's Wolf Blitzer, were stunned by what they saw in the days after the storm hit.

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (CNN): So many of these people, almost all of them that we see are so poor, and they are so black, and this is going to raise lots of questions for people who are watching this story unfold.

KEYES: On his first visit, President Bush told reporters that he looked forward to sitting on the porch of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's new house after it was rebuilt. Critics blasted former first lady Barbara Bush for this comment about the evacuees staying at Houston's Astrodome on the radio program "Marketplace."

(Soundbite of "Marketplace")

Mrs. BARBARA BUSH (Former First Lady): So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them.

KEYES: During a telethon to support Hurricane Katrina victims, rapper Kanye West voiced what seems, at least anecdotally, to be the opinion of many African-Americans.

(Soundbite of telethon)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): I hate the way they portray us in the media.

KEYES: He also said...

(Soundbite of telethon)

Mr. WEST: George Bush doesn't care about black people.

KEYES: Many people spent the first five days after the storm watching the 24-hour cable channels. They saw Americans, mostly black, wading or swimming through neck-deep water, carrying food, water and clothes. Some carried televisions. On one hand, USC critical studies Professor Todd Boyd says the media helped draw attention to the dire straits victims faced, but on the other, he says, some of the images were problematic.

Professor TODD BOYD (USC): When you look at, you know, just the large number of displaced black people there were, that was a certain image. And then when you start to show images of looting, that, of course, plays into some very old stereotypes in society and, I think, sort of confirms for a lot of people what they believe already.

KEYES: Boyd also says race affects everyone's perception of this coverage.

Prof. BOYD: If you're black, you know, race factors into everything that happens to you. If you're not, then, you know, maybe it seems strange. Maybe you think, `Oh, this doesn't have anything to do with it,' but it does. It has to do with race. It also has to do with class.

KEYES: Boyd says coverage of this hurricane has exposed a class of people who live in this country under Third World conditions, and Americans don't want to accept that. Nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune says the invisible poor haven't taken center stage for years. He calls this coverage the first big racial eruption in the media since the O.J. Simpson trial 10 years ago.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Chicago Tribune): We saw a story that already contained enough elements to be a big media story suddenly became this whole allegory about modern America and how we deal with our own divisions around race and class.

KEYES: Gregory Kane, a self-described black conservative who writes for The Baltimore Sun and BlackAmericaWeb.com, says he believes some black leaders were playing the race card more than the media. He cites the controversy over use of the word `refugee.'

Mr. GREGORY KANE (The Baltimore Sun; BlackAmericaWeb.com): Some people saw something racial in that. Well, first of all, the definitions I looked up indicate that it just means someone who seeks refuge, and I assume that means everybody who is trying to get the heck out of New Orleans.

KEYES: Kane doesn't believe the media coverage itself was racist. On the local channels in Baltimore, he says he saw looters of all colors, but Kane says the underlying issues that cause this problem do deal with race and class.

Mr. KANE: There are a lot of black folks in New Orleans who are poor, but that's because the poor are disproportionately black. But what you have here is a class issue that apparently some decision was made that we're not going to get the poor folks out of New Orleans.

KEYES: The Tribune's Page says he hopes this disaster and its coverage lead to some serious conversation about how we close some of the gaps. But, he adds, he's too old and pessimistic to think that will happen. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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