☰ Menu
The HeldenFiles Online

A Little Context

By Rich Heldenfels Published: August 28, 2012

As the news is ever more full of talk about Hurricane Isaac, the threat to New Orleans and how that will reflect in politics, I thought you might be interested in a piece I wrote when Hurricane Katrina was still fresh news and how it was covered, and its own reflection in politics (and Kanye West). So here's that piece from the Beacon Journal archives:

From the big red blotch on weather maps to New Orleans buildings in flames, television carried images from the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Early on, we saw semicomic pictures and cliches: Reporters letting themselves be lashed by rain and wind, water sweeping around cars. There were moments of self-glorification: Fox News branded a scene early in the week as "Fox affiliate reporter in thigh-deep water." CNN trumpeted "unrivaled Katrina coverage" in a press release.

Yet the gravity of what had happened sank in. Death toll estimated in the thousands. Shortages in medical help. Family members searching for each other across several states, from one shelter to another. Blurry video and scratchy phone calls came from reporters who could not keep their emotions from their reports on the dead and the devastated.

If you absorbed those images day after day, you might well conclude that this is nature's 9/11.

It became a disaster not only of enormous physical proportion but of great symbolic value, one that by the end of the week had evolved into a discussion laden with issues of politics, class and race.

That was especially evident Friday night during A Concert for Hurricane Relief, an NBC fund-raising special.

By that time TV had played and replayed President Bush's embracing a woman of color during his visit to the flood zones on Friday. But on the special, hip-hop star Kanye West went off script to declare, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

"America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off as slow as possible," West also said. And he echoed a criticism of some news reports by saying, "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food."

Matt Lauer, host of the special, seemed to be answering West's comments when he said: "Emotions in this country right now are running very high. Sometimes that emotion is translated into inspiration, sometimes into criticism. We've heard some of that tonight. But it's still part of the American way of life."

The complex saga of Katrina was a story that viewers could see beginning on the Weather Channel -- the first place to go when hurricanes and storms loom -- and then spreading across TV and other media.

Yet, in one key respect, this was not 9/11.

In that case, the impact of the images of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center was immediately evident on TV. Broadcast networks as well as cable suspended all regular programming, and we were riveted by the sight of the growing disaster.
Katrina coverage has been more of a slow build, like the storm itself gathering force -- or President Bush's gradual realization that the disaster needed more of his attention.

Whatever the reason, cable was in front of the story from the beginning, while its counterparts at broadcast networks for several days confined most of their coverage to regular programs.

We can only guess why. Perhaps because New York and Washington, D.C., are more familiar to many Americans than New Orleans and its environs. The 9/11 sites also contained clusters of national media immediately able to be on the scene, and to react to locations very familiar to them.

As I said, race has been a talking point in discussions of how post-Katrina relief was handled. So we should also at least ask if Katrina's impact on the poor and the nonwhite made it seem less important to broadcasters at first.

Still, as the immensity of the disaster grew (and the broader cultural questions came to the fore), broadcast's involvement increased. 

In  addition to the NBC fund-raising telecast, six broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox, UPN, The WB and, again, NBC -- and PBS plan to air a special fund-raiser on Friday.
Joel Gallen, who produced the post-9/11 America: A Tribute to Heroes special, is also overseeing the new show, called Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast. A Northeast Ohio fund-raiser spanning several channels is also planned to air in the hour before the national event. (Another televised fund-raiser, including MTV and other cable channels, is set for Saturday.)

ABC dropped its original plans for 20/20 on Friday in favor of an all-Katrina telecast. CBS expanded its newscast on Friday to make room for more Katrina coverage.

The impact went beyond news. In a telecast to air Monday, former New Orleans resident Ellen DeGeneres scrapped the monologue and some segments from her talk show to discuss Katrina instead.

"I can't pretend to do a normal show," said DeGeneres, according to a statement from the show, which airs locally on WKYC (Channel 3). "I just won't do it."

ABC yanked promotional spots for Invasion, a series that begins with a small community devastated by what looks like a hurricane. If and when promotional spots return, they may take a different approach. The network has also considered delaying the premier of Invasion, scheduled for Sept. 21.

"First and foremost, our thoughts go out to all those affected by this tragedy," the network said in a statement. "As with anything as serious as this we are taking great efforts to assess sensitivities with regard to our series. We are currently looking at all our programming and marketing efforts with this in mind."

Of course, television -- and TV viewing -- did not change completely during the Katrina saga. I still received questions from people asking about soap operas and other programs, including Big Brother and The Cut, two reality shows that paled in comparison to the grimmer reality elsewhere on TV.

On the other hand, at a local hospital on Thursday, people asked that the waiting-room TV sets be tuned to CNN. They had pain in their own lives to deal with, but would not ignore the horrors outside the waiting room. One father could even be heard explaining the post-Katrina events to his young daughter.

Sadly, he will have far more to explain.

The HeldenFiles Online Archives




Heldenfels' mailbag

Prev Next