September 19, 2005

Will Katrina Resurrect a Journalism of Passion?

As the waters recede from New Orleans, the increasingly partisan debate continues over the whether racism, benign or otherwise, contributed to the negligence of government at all levels to protect the city's poorest population - its African American neighborhoods.

What is the role of journalists in this debate? Have we paid enough attention to the racial and economic divisions in our society? Have we held the institutions of government upon which the poor most depend - our schools, our hospitals, our courts - accountable for their service to community and expense of public money?

When the Gulf of Mexico spilled through the sodden dikes of New Orleans and inundated the city's economic ghettos, the flooding, ironically, uncovered a journalistic outrage that had lain submerged in mainstream news media for several decades. As journalists, we need to ask ourselves, as others are now doing, where was that fury in the years before the flood? Where was the passion to protect against the abuses of power - or, in this case, the absence of protective power - those in society cannot speak for themselves or whose unfashionable pleadings fall on indifferent ears? We like to say part of our journalistic mission, part of our constitutionally-protected role in a civil society, is to speak truth to power. Did we do that? Did we do it loudly enough? Often enough? Long enough?

Or did we bury that purpose beneath a pile of more pressing or conflicting urgencies - readership and advertising losses, over-extended newsrooms trying to fulfill a laundry list of management priorities, religious-like adhesion to an "objectivity" that causes readers to increasingly see the institutions of the press not at part of the solution but as part of the problem?

Poverty is out of fashion, a victim of issue fatigue. Partisanship is sexier and more fun - argument for its own sake. But deep, endemic poverty eventually surfaces as the non-partisan beast it is, as the Republicans in the White House and the Democrats in the Louisiana statehouse are learning far too late. Government at all levels failed the poor of New Orleans. Was journalism also culpable?

It is to be expected that pundits like Paul Krugman of the Times and Democrats like ex-President Clinton will lash out at the Bush administration, and at American society in general, for turning a blind eye to the welfare of the nation's poor, of whom black Americans compose the highest percentage. Writes Krugman of the president:

"Under George W. Bush - who, like Mr. Reagan, isn't personally racist but relies on the support of racists - the anti-government right has reached a new pinnacle of power."

And of our society:

" … who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself: 'There but for the grace of God go I.' A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself: 'Why should I be taxed to support those people?'"

Clinton blames the social and fiscal policies of his successor's administration for heightening the effect of the disaster. He says:

" … you can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up. … if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made."

What are journalists to do with these accusations beyond simply reporting them?

I see them as challenges - red flags that I hope stirs further fury and fuels reinvigoration of a journalism of passion, one that confronts our society's most vexing issues and confronts those responsible for solving them with deep, contextual reporting and relentless pointed commentary.

Let us not hide from this challenge behind the false shield of objectivity. Some things are just wrong and it is OK to say so. It is wrong for people to live in poverty generation after generation in a country so wealthy. It is wrong for skin color to determine destiny in a country so avowedly democratic. It is wrong that only the wealthy can avoid sending their children to schools that do not educate. It is wrong that health care is an unaffordable luxury for millions of our fellow Americans.

These are bitter truths. We do not need to dilute their harsh taste with he-said-she-said journalism. These truths need champions - and that is something journalists should proud to be: Stewards of what is true.

I believe one contributor to the horrifying decline in public credibility of mainstream news organizations is that the press silenced its voice as a watchdog of government and become instead a de facto spokesman for government. Journalism of passion and advocacy gave way to the journalism of stenography.

It is not enough to do great work highlighting the failings of government - as the Times-Picayune did in New Orleans with its prescient, investigative series three years ago about the dangerous condition of the city's levees. I applaud the Times-Picayune for that work and for its powerful presence in the community after the storm, but without insinuating anything negative about the paper's efforts I think we should ask: What good did it do? The newspaper published and the city still perished.

Publishing is not enough. It is too easy for those in power to ignore or manipulate the news media, to use the elements of faux journalism to undercut the elements or true journalism. If we find truths, if we believe them critical to the wellbeing of our society, then we must champion them. Over and over and over.

This week, two journalism organizations are taking on the issue of race and journalism. The Institute for Justice and Journalism, a USC-based organizations I've done research for, is gathering its 2005 racial justice fellows with this year's crop of Neiman fellows at Harvard for a series of seminar on race and reporting. And, the Poynter Institute is holding a week-long workshop, Writing About Race.

I asked Steve Montiel, head of IJJ, for some thoughts on the purpose the meeting. He responded with these questions:

"What did we learn from Hurricane Katrina about race and justice in America? How can these lessons strengthen journalism about justice and injustice? What do journalists need to know to report accurately and authoritatively about race and poverty? What questions should reporters and editors be asking to help the public understand and care about the complexities and consequences of class-based racism in a new world?"

I'll say it even more plainly: What do we have to do to ensure that our everyday journalism is filled with the passion that emerged after Hurricane Katrina?

I am coordinating a group blog on the Poynter site from the two conferences, something new for both organizations. Journalism training and fellowships traditionally have been limited to a fortunate few who have had the time or the money to participate. The blog is small step toward enabling journalists anywhere in the world to be exposed to the thinking on this issue and to participate through comments in the discussion. Please join in.

 Mary Curtis on race and journalism For today’s reporters, understanding they don’t know much about poor people is the starting point. Will they stay with the story long enough to get up to speed?

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 19, 2005 09:00 PM

But ... but ... but ... Liberal bias! Liberal bias!!

On a slightly more serious note:

[[Some things are just wrong and it is OK to say so. It is wrong for people to live in poverty generation after generation in a country so wealthy. It is wrong for skin color to determine destiny in a country so avowedly democratic. It is wrong that only the wealthy can avoid sending their children to schools that do not educate. It is wrong that health care is an unaffordable luxury for millions of our fellow Americans.

These are bitter truths. ]]

To you they are truths. But to many Americans, they are merely value judgments, and flawed ones at that. How do you respond to those Americans?

Posted by: Lex on September 20, 2005 08:54 AM

Lex, I think that is right on.

The conservative retorts would be that "people live in poverty generation after generation" because they do not take responsibility for their own lives. The wealthy have earned the right to be privileged because they have worked hard and accepted responsibility for their own lives. We need private school vouchers so that not only the wealthy can educate their kids. And, if we provided health care it would only increase the abuse of the system.

How does journalism respond to these assumptions (in my eyes, flawed)? My guess is that the real problem is that these value judgements are not based on fact, but rather on belief.

Posted by: Daniel Kreiss on September 20, 2005 09:42 AM

What Tim says is absolutely correct. To say that wealth and poverty are value judgments is stupid. Earning wealth doesn't happen on a level playing field and I don't see how the 39 million Americans without health care and the millions of those who work and still can't afford it can be a value judgment -- it's a fact and it's roots are historical and complicated but the press have a responsibility to hold those in decision-making positions accountable for the failings of public services. It isn't about a liberal/conservative issue or slant but independent journalists, regardless of personal ideology, tackling these issues from every perspective and angle.

These issues are tied up in racism, history and the long historical tie between wealth and virtue in this country (read Reinhold Neihbur if you don't agree -- he was hardly a liberal and criticized vehemently America's naive self-righteousness, especially this regard. You should also try Gunnar Myrdal, whose surveys in the 1930s addressed this issue poignantly).

Cheers to Tim for his amazing and much needed work. I hope more editors and reporters see what you do and listen.

Posted by: Dawn on September 20, 2005 11:42 AM

Dawn, what makes you think I haven't read Niehbur and Myrdal? For that matter, what makes you think I disagree with Tim?

I'm simply stating a fact, that many Americans would disagree with what Tim states, and asking a question: How would Tim respond to those Americans? If you were Tim, how would YOU respond, assuming you sought to persuade?

Posted by: Lex on September 20, 2005 01:58 PM

Wow, that's hectic. It's intetersting to guage the responses. I understand the whole objectivity vibe, and the need to have a balanced perspective, but how long does one have to wait for that to come around? And is it truly possible? Someone (I think Lex?) earlier said that not all Americans would look at this situation in the same way that Tim has, but what would have to happen for them to do so? Does it have to personally affect them? I think it's sad when humanity has to come to that to be able to to realise that not all is right with the world. It's the individualistic notion that Western society is based on (and that affects other parts of the world too) that will end up killing us, especially when one has to qualify that a problem is only a problem once it affects me.

That's my 2c worth all the way from SA.

Posted by: Tshego on September 22, 2005 01:32 AM
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