Roundtable: Katrina Lawsuits, BET Fundraiser

Monday's topics: Lawsuits roll in as New Orleans dries out; a look at the economic impact Hurricane Katrina is having on the cities evacuees; and thoughts on BET's documentary about the response and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Answering the Call: A BET News S.O.S. Update. Guests: Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University; Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the Cousin Jeff Chronicleson BET; and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya in for Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable we examine the lawsuits rolling in as New Orleans dries out. We'll look at the economic impact Hurricane Katrina is having on the various cities that evacuees now call home. And we'll hear what our panelists think about a new BET documentary on local and federal government response to the disaster.

Joining us now from member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, is Glenn Loury. He's professor of economics at Brown University. At our Washington, DC, headquarters, Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the "Cousin Jeff Chronicles" on BET. Jeff has been to New Orleans twice and visited evacuees with rapper Kanye West. And finally, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service in Maryland.

Welcome to all of you.

Professor GLEN LOURY (Brown University): Good morning.

CHIDEYA: So let me just jump in on the issue of these lawsuits. There was the very well noted case of the deaths in a nursing home, residents just left there to die. Are these lawsuits just? Let me start with you, George. Are we going to see a lot of litigiousness, and is it justified?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): Of course we're going to see a lot of lawsuits. You're going to have arguments about what really caused the damage, the floods or the hurricane. And people lost a lot of money, a lot of houses, a lot of people, a lot of businesses. And so that's where we saw these kinds of disputes, and I think a lot of them will end up in court. I think the difference, though--the major difference is when you file a civil court case vs. a criminal case is that the standard of proof is actually lower. You just have to rely on the preponderance of evidence as opposed to a stricter standard, so I think that they'll be easier to win but I think it'll be very, very difficult, with respect--difficult, and we can expect to see a lot of lawsuits.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, I don't know whether you've heard about the fact that the state of Mississippi is suing insurers to make sure the people who didn't have flood insurance actually get their claims paid.

Prof. LOURY: No, I didn't know that.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, I find that very interesting. Do you think that that strategy is wise for the state to actually sue the insurance companies? Is that the only way that some people are going to get their claims paid?

Prof. LOURY: Well, I don't know enough about the facts to really have an opinion on what the state's doing, but I will say this. There's a huge amount of money at stake, and those insurance policies did have specifications. Obviously there's going to then be struggle between claimants and the insurance companies each trying to do the best for themselves in the circumstances. My instinct is that the state should stay out of that and that courts should interpret those contracts when disputes arise. There could be many billions of dollars involved for the insurance companies, but the politics of the situation probably are going to militate in favor of the politicians trying to get as much for the people as they can.

CHIDEYA: And, Jeff...

Mr. JEFFREY JOHNSON (Host, "Cousin Jeff Chronicles"): And, Farai, if I can interject.

CHIDEYA: Yes, Jeff.

Mr. JOHNSON: I like what the state is doing. I think that there are a large number of poor folks who will not get any benefits otherwise. And I think--I agree. I think that there will be obviously some overpoliticization of this process. But I do think that there are those who, even if it's a small claim, are going to be able to get benefits that otherwise they wouldn't have got if the state didn't get involved.

Prof. LOURY: Well, let me just say this. I don't want to argue. I mean, I want those people to get benefits, too. The question is whether or not it's the insurance companies that are responsible to give them, outside of the terms of contracts, or whether it's the general public who ought to pay the freight if we want to see people get, you know, benefits.

CHIDEYA: Well, Glenn, let me give you a very personal example. My uncle actually owned a multi-unit apartment complex in New Orleans. And when he went in for insurance, he was told he didn't need flood insurance because his place was in the French Quarter and it wasn't on the flood plain. Now they're telling him, `You don't have flood insurance so we're not going to pay your claim.' What...

Prof. LOURY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: What should happen? And he's going to go to court and try to figure it out, you know, and obviously this is one very specific, very personal example to me. But in a case like that, where people, on the recommendation of insurers, didn't get the kind of insurance that would have protected them, what should happen in a legal sense?

Prof. LOURY: I don't know. My instinct is probably in case like that, the guy has a claim, you know. But what--all cases are not the same, and that's why I think courts probably ought to adjudicate these disputes as opposed to, you know, a kind of blanket resolution being imposed on all the cases by a statute.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me turn back to you, Jeff. There was a documentary on BET yesterday and, of course, you do your "Cousin Jeff Chronicles" for BET. It was called "Answering the Call: A BET News SOS Update." It talked about everything from the role that race played the disaster to some very moving personal stories of people who sacrificed to save their families. What is the role of black media now that the immediate tragedy is over but the resettlement will continue?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think that clearly there are more stories than there is time to tell them. And the black media, with every resource that it has, I think is going to have a responsibility to tell some of the stories that the major media will not tell. I think it's going to be very interesting how this discussion on race continues to play out. I think there needs to be a real microscope or magnifying glass at least placed on so many of the areas that haven't gotten media attention. There've been so many cities and towns in the state of Mississippi and Louisiana that have, in many cases, been overshadowed by the tragedy that took place in New Orleans. And so I think that the media attention that can be placed on those areas is necessary to ensure that public opinion and public outcry is made for those people that are suffering, in many cases, as much as those who have been displaced from New Orleans. And I think that's one of the things that has to happen.

I think additionally the media has to be involved in just the ongoing political issues that are going to take place around the president, all of his promises, that in many cases many believe he has no ability to deliver on, especially if we remain in Iraq. And so I think that there's so many stories that have come out of this tragedy that the black press needs to be very focused on providing some of those stories that we may not see on CBS, NBC and FOX News.

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you one follow-up. BET is undergoing some restructuring. Reginald Hudlin was brought in to revamp programming. The BET News is, you know, boasting that it will have a new look on October 3rd, coming up. Some people have been extremely happy with BET's response to this disaster. Other people said, `Why did you keep playing all those music videos? Why didn't we have wall-to-wall, 24-hour coverage?' Now I know it's an awkward thing to ask you, since you're working for BET, but do you think that the channel or other African-American channels should have just turned themselves into news outlets and gone wall-to-wall, 24 hours as at least the initial disaster was unfolding?

Mr. JOHNSON: As a citizen and somebody that's concerned with the issue, as I've been down to the Gulf on three occasions now, I thought it would have been fantastic if those networks did that. As somebody that has some insight on the behind-the-scenes piece, I understand that that's a more difficult proposition, once you start talking about resources to do that. I think BET was caught in a very difficult place, being in the middle of restructuring and not having the pieces in place to be able to do that.

However, I think BET could have done a better job than it did of providing updates, of providing information, of ensuring that people were on the ground to tell the stories that otherwise have not been told. And I don't know if any of our networks, TV1, the Black Family Channel or BET, from a television perspective, had the resources to be able to do that. That's why I think your earlier question is even more important, about how it's going to be handled from this point, because while the bulk of the emergency piece is over, there are going to be real stories from a media perspective that can--that have to be told for the next year at least. And I'm hoping that BET in its restructuring has the ability and the wherewithal to focus on the stories that are important so that people who don't get their news from anywhere else can get it.

Mr. CURRY: Let me interject here.

CHIDEYA: George.

Mr. CURRY: I used to be editor of Emerge magazine, which was owned by BET. And, of course, was on "Lead Stories" for seven years with Ed Gordon. And let's just go ahead and cut to the chase. BET has downsized. It's de-emphasized its news programs, its public affairs programs, and I used to be one who defended it because even with the rump shaking, they had "BET Tonight," they had "Teen Summit," they had "Lead Stories" and then recently had the news. They have basically gotten rid of all those programs. I don't care how they try to repackage it and say, `We're going to have news updates,' there has been a de-emphasis of news on BET.

Mr. JOHNSON: No, but, George, since Reggie has come in...

Mr. CURRY: He's over entertainment. He's not over news. He's over entertainment.

Mr. JOHNSON: But...

Mr. CURRY: He's president of entertainment.

Mr. JOHNSON: I understand that, but as someone that's inside now, I understand how the restructuring's taking place. I am the last person that's attempting to defend what BET has not done up unto this point in time. However, I am aware of at least three public affairs news programs that are slated since Reggie has come in. So I'm not talking about the news...

Mr. CURRY: Well, I hope you're right.

Mr. JOHNSON: ...bullets or the hourly updates. And I think we've got to hold Reggie to the fire, so he's not just going to be ...(unintelligible).

Mr. CURRY: Well, let me just follow up. I mean, you know, I hear this announcement, but all I'm seeing is with the news--and I hope you're absolutely right, that there will be good news, but right now what I see is they took the news off and said, `I'm going to have updates.' They had that 20 years ago, OK? So we should never get to the point where we have the de-emphasis of all these public affairs programs, so I'll be watching very closely, and let's not forget that BET is not black only. It's owned by Viacom.

CHIDEYA: Let me bring Glenn in on this. You are a professor of economics at Brown University. George Curry, as he mentioned, used to be editor of Emerge, which was acquired by BET and then closed. Is there a profit model for the news about something like Katrina, let alone by black-run stations? You know, there's been a de-emphasis in general of news as a, you know, loss leader for these entertainment companies that now own a lot of the news outlets.

Prof. LOURY: Yeah, that's my impression. I'm not by any means an expert on the media market, but my sense is that the news is having a hard time getting the resources inside these corporations that it needs to be done properly across the board. I wish that we had greater infrastructure to bring a kind of sympathetic and humane portrayal of the lives of African-Americans in the face of this disaster and otherwise into the American media stream, because it's desperately needed to counter the stigmatizing and stereotyping images and conceptions that are being projected otherwise. I hope that BET pulls its weight in that regard.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you a follow-up economic question. There was a poll by The Washington Post and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. It found that fewer than half of the Katrina victims or evacuees living in Houston want to go back to New Orleans. Now what are the economic ramifications or the political ramifications of the fact that some of the people who were most vulnerable in the city just have no desire at this point to go back?

Prof. LOURY: Well, this is extremely interesting. I did take note of the results in that poll. At the personal level, people thinking about going back, I guess the question's going to be: Go back to what exactly? The communities that may have nurtured them before the disaster are no longer there. There aren't jobs, therefore then, and so forth. On the other hand, if you think about the politics of the siting of public housing, in any big city in the United States, it's always extremely contentious. There's a reason why our big cities are dramatically segregated by race and class. And anyplace that large numbers of people from the 9th Ward and other such communities in New Orleans are settled are going to end up being different places than they had been before those newcomers came. The lines outside the gun shops in Baton Rouge tell us something about the kind of backlash and the kind of politics that we're going to be seeing played out in these communities.

CHIDEYA: Now let me get you in on...

Mr. CURRY: My theory is what you had earlier...

CHIDEYA: Go ahead, George.

Mr. CURRY: ...what you had earlier, a guest on, and that is you're rushing people back there with all these contaminants still present in the hopes that we're going to have a Mardi Gras early next year, just to show that we're back. I mean, there are too many dangers there, and I think the mayor's getting ahead of himself.

Mr. JOHNSON: Farai, I think also, and I'll be very quick, is that we should question that poll. I mean, I was in Houston and at the Astrodome. Most of the people that I talked to wanted to go back home. And so I think we should be very careful, too, in some of these polls, because there's going to be some maneuvering for developers to try to get as much land as they can in New Orleans. And I think we--and I don't want to be a conspiracy theorist, but I think we have to be very careful in those kind of polling numbers because there are people that don't know anything but New Orleans and what they're getting in Baton Rouge and Houston and other cities is not what they anticipated, is not at the level that they need, and so they're not being treated in these other cities so well that I can imagine them saying, `This is going to be my new home.'

CHIDEYA: Jeff, let me follow up on that. There was a big Los Angeles Times article about real estate speculation in New Orleans. You have been there. You've seen what the city looks like. What is your worst-case scenario and best-case scenario for how some of the poorest folks from New Orleans will fare in the new New Orleans in terms of real estate development?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, first, I agree with George. I think the proposition of moving back in immediately is very dangerous where we don't know all the contaminants that exist. But I think from a real estate standpoint, worst-case scenario, there's already Halliburton on the ground. There are already developers on the ground that are attempting to reshape what the city looks like for the benefit of the rich. We are--even right now the poor are being pitted against the poor when you're seeing poor folks battling against poor folks in Houston.

And so the question is, worst-case scenario, who's going to represent the poorest of the poor in New Orleans as it relates to ensuring that people's property is protected, especially those that didn't have insurance, insuring that part of the city as it's redeveloped, the portions that were so underdeveloped in the past? And we know that New Orleans is one of the poorest cities--large cities in the country. Are those developments that were sorely underdeveloped now going to be developed in a way that is favorable to those who would live there? Best-case scenario, the mayor is going to push for that kind of protection, but I don't know if I believe that's going to happen. I really think we're going to be looking at worst-case scenario, which is a mad dash for developers to try to get as much land as they can to turn it into the new Gulf resort city that so many wish it could have been before.

CHIDEYA: But, Glenn...

Mr. CURRY: Well, mayor appointed a commission, I think it's eight blacks and eight whites...

CHIDEYA: George.

Mr. CURRY: ...that would actually decide the future of the city and help plot where it's going. And so you have that kind of balance and to have that kind of power there, or you might see some dif--at least some fair consideration.

CHIDEYA: And, Glenn, let me get you in on this whole question of what is the best- and worst-case scenario from the perspective of what's the mechanism? Right now you have a lot of people or a lot of agencies all sort of wrangling for turf. You have individual developers, individual homeowners, federal, state and local government, non-governmental agencies like all of the relief agencies, and as Jeff said, who is going to look out for the interests of the poor folks? Who should be? You know, in the kind of governmental and legal system that we have right now, who does get to look out for the interest of people who may not have means of their own?

Prof. LOURY: I think this is a fundamental question. I agree very much with what Jeff said. In my mind, the principle here has to be that this is not just about property. This is also about people and about their relationships and their communities. And the entitlement here is not just the ownership of pieces of land or real estate, but it's also the stake that individuals had in the city by virtue of having been a part of the city. So the politics of this has to be shaped by a conception in New Orleans which is not just putting stuff back on the ground, but it's also restoring--you know, it's also restoring the community and, if you like, the kind of spiritual life of the city and the role that poor black people played in the reality of New Orleans has somehow to be reflected. And it's not going to be reflected if all you're talking about is who owned what and who's going to be compensated for what they owned, because those people didn't own that much.

CHIDEYA: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. That was Glenn Loury, professor of economics at Brown University, joining us from WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. And at Washington, DC's, headquarters, Jeffrey Johnson, host and producer of the "Cousin Jeff Chronicles" on BET. Finally, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association New Service in Maryland. Thank you, gentlemen, all for joining us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you, Farai.

Prof. LOURY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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