Eight years ago, a storm came barreling through the Gulf of Mexico and smashed the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Katrina leveled the city of Waveland. It buckled roads in the city of Biloxi, it ripped the city of Bogalusa. And it absolutely smashed the city of New Orleans.
Eight years later, the images from that time feel as if they happened in someone elses nightmare. But they were real. The bodies floating in the canals were real. The dead woman in the wheelchair covered by a sheet was real. The people trapped in the heat and stench of the Super Dome were real. The people sweltering in their attics as the floodwaters rose were real. The people making camp on the highways and bridges were real. The people looting, the people wading through chest-high waters in search of bread and diapers, were real.
Real, too, was the sense of surprise, of abject shock, with which the nation and their news media realized an astonishing thing. There are poor people in America. Indeed, it turns out there are people in America so desperately poor that they lack the means even to run to higher ground in the face of a killer storm. They dont have cars. They dont have credit cards. They dont have the things that the rest of us are able to take for granted.
As an Illinois senator named Barack Obama put it, "I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans werent just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago - to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."
For a brief moment, the astonishing news that there is poverty in America seemed to galvanize the news media. We wondered how in the heck we could have missed this. Newsweek responded with a cover story: The Other America. The public editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution chastised the paper for dedicating a reporter to coverage of the zoo and the aquarium, but none to cover welfare and public housing. A reader wrote the New York Times to express disappointment in that papers failure to bring attention to poverty. As a close reader of The Times and of poverty trends, he said, I was surprised to learn of the poverty conditions that prevailed in New Orleans. Why didnt the economic-social-racial conditions in New Orleans get some attention in the paper?
The Times, he added, let us down.
The Times, or at least its public editor, agreed, writing: Poverty so pervasive that it hampered evacuation would seem to have been worthy of The Times attention before it emerged as a pivotal challenge two weeks ago. The papers coverage, he added, falls far short of what its readers have a right to expect of a national newspaper.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there arose a consensus in American journalism that we had done a terrible job of covering poverty. I am here to tell you that we have done an equally abysmal job of covering race.
Many of us, I suspect, will resist that characterization. They will point to the attention given the furor over Paula Deen, the Henry Louis Gates affair and the subsequent beer summit, the headlines out of Jena, Louisiana, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the opening of the Martin Luther King monument on the Washington Mall, the sliming of Shirley Sherrod. And, yes, they will point to the wall-towall coverage given the shooting of Trayvon Martin especially this week, as Martins assailant was acquitted and the nation grappled with the aftermath.