Sunday, November 04, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
A FALSE TALE OF 2 DISASTERS
Race as a burning issue
In media coverage of wildfires and Katrina, bias glows under surface
By Anthony Stanford
The wildfires that raged through Southern California, taking lives, burning homes and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate, were this country’s most devastating natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, another reminder that we mortals are at nature’s mercy. The victims, like those of Katrina, will suffer the firestorm’s effects for years.
But based on the media coverage of the two tragedies, the similarities end there.
Following their biased and racially divisive reporting on Katrina, the national media took it upon themselves to soothe America's collective psyche.
Perhaps some reporting was a good-faith effort to illustrate improvements in preparedness, coordination and leadership since Katrina. But amid the constant emphasis on order and humanity’s softer side, it’s hard not to sense that race and class biases played a role in the media’s portrayal.
The implication was that the socioeconomic standing of the California wildfire victims made the disaster response and evacuation effort easier. But that ignores how different the two disasters were.
Victims of the fires were distinguished in every possible way from Katrina’s victims. The media enthusiastically reported that unprecedented cooperation and coordination existed at every level of California’s disaster effort. Information about problems typically associated with a large-scale evacuation, such as food and water shortages, transportation headaches and unruly evacuees, was noticeably scant.
Some media outlets made direct comparisons with Katrina regarding crime. Besides reporting that an arsonist may have started some fires and a few non-specific mentions of “spotty looting,” the media rarely mentioned the ugly side of human nature.
Whereas media coverage of Katrina shocked America’s heartland with its exhaustive examination of human desperation, network news stations led their wildfires coverage with images of President Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and federal and local officials working in concert to save American lives and property. Everyone on the Terminator’s team was in lock step. There were no media reports of defectors or inept bureaucrats, no accounts of finger-pointing for bungled tasks.
If Katrina coverage was defined by the almost constant harping on the negative, which presented an unreal portrait, the California coverage was marked by the almost complete absence of anything negative. That, too, presented an unreal portrait.
San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium would come to represent everything the New Orleans Superdome had not, ignoring the fact that, unlike the Superdome, Qualcomm had been prepared for the evacuees and staffed by trained professionals.
In television interviews, evacuees described the stadium as a sanctuary. Disaster victims came off like actors in a vignette, expressing appreciation for all that had been done for them. Broadcast after broadcast showed evacuees in an almost festive mood, with an abundance of food and water. There was no need for a lock-and-load order at Qualcomm Stadium.
Even the problem that received such intense media attention during the Gulf Coast crisis was easily resolved. “What to do with the pets?” Well, it turns out that in sunny Southern California, there is a home for every pet.
California’s convicts also got in on the Golden State’s Good Neighbor Fest when their help was requested to battle the inferno. This is in sharp contrast with Gulf Coast inmates, who were described as law enforcement’s top concern.
Night after night during Katrina, outraged viewers watched in horror as the networks aired lurid reports, true or not, of criminals roaming the landscape raping and pillaging in the storm’s aftermath. Compare this with one San Diego news report that described the convicts this way: “They may have stolen cars, used drugs or forged checks, but when California is burning, they fight fires.”
Airing side-by-side images of Katrina victims and those in California sent warped messages about then and now, right and wrong, order and chaos. And add to that the language used.
When Katrina’s victims fled the storm’s rage, the media described them as refugees. Two years later, surreal images of Californians motoring to refuge did not prompt negative labeling: The people were instead, rightly, referred to as disaster victims.
Instead of using the recent successes in California to illustrate improvements in governmental response and coordination, Bush administration officials got in on the spin, reaching back to criticize Louisiana’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
To be fair, New Orleans and Louisiana officials faced much greater challenges. And when they held news conferences, they had to think on their feet while sometimes standing in several feet of water.
Two years after the disaster, the temptation to point fingers remains hard to resist. But even harder for administration officials, it seems, is keeping the promises it made to America’s Gulf Coast victims.
Those who suffered at the hands of Katrina were done a disservice by the media coverage of the storm and the governmental response to it. Why they paid such a price, and continue to pay such a high price, is a question even more troubling given the events in California.
[Anthony Stanford is a Chicago-area writer and contributor to Chicago Public Radio.]