Purging the Wrong Voices (1)

Posted by: June Cross

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June Cross



This is the text of a speech I made before a Workshop on Diversity - enough people asked for the text that I thought I'd post it here...


I made about two dozen trips to New Orleans over the course of three years to do "The Old Man and the Storm "  Anyone going down to the Lower Ninth Ward in the first year and a half or so after Katrina would have found him - working and often sleeping alone in his gutted house.  He presented a stoic face of determination in the face of disaster - but he also represented the history of a city and a portion of its people too often overlooked in the mainstream news - or confused with the population that had been trapped in the Superdome.  Too often, reporters - especially television reporters - working on deadline fail to make distinctions among the people we cover:  and all the people in the Superdome become "the Poor" and they all live in the Lower Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward then comes to represent some long disregarded front in the forgotten War on Poverty.

The fact is that 65% of those living in the Lower Ninth owned their own homes - more homeowners lived there than practically in any other part of the city.  And while their homes were wiped out by the failure of the levees, we need also make a distinction between what happened in New Orleans - where the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers failed - and what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi, where a flood surge came in, took everything that was on shore, and pulled it out to the Gulf of Mexico.  There's a difference between an event that occurs over the course of 24 hours, and one that goes on for three weeks.  The destructive force of the water in the one case, versus the crushing weight of several hundred million tons of water sitting on top of a city-'s infrastructure in the other - well, there's just two different rebuilding tasks there; and the press hasn't been very good about making the distinctions.


The local New Orleans Paper, The Times Picayune, covered this rebuilding process at what' now gets called  "hyperlocal reporting"

The battles between homeowners and  insurers, the battles between the state and Congress and the federal government, the failures of city government:  these are covered every day on the front pages of the paper, above the fold.  Whenever I'm in New Orleans I always feel that I have left the United States - and not just because so much of the city is still in rebuild mode.  The national and international news that preoccupies us in New York simply doesn't mean much in a city where most of the public libraries have yet to open, where the health care system is crippled, where the school system is still struggling to transform itself; where crime exerts a crippling force on local morale (the crime rate also has me wondering about all these claims that the poor have been pushed permanently out of the city.  There are evidently enough criminals leeching off their fellow citizens that New Orleans is once again one of the most murderous municipalities.  I betcha who's really been pushed out are the working class and lower working class - which is what this site is dedicated to documenting).

But back to my point.  Despite the fact that the Times Pic on any given day has a front page totally different from any of the major papers in the MSM, no one considers it out of touch with the news.  In 2006, the paper won a pulitzer.  As its editor Jim Amoss accepted the award, he spoke about the importance of hiring tocuh, talented, dedicated journalists who know their own backyards (meaning the community) who understand the complexity of the situation facing the locals, and who are driven by a passion for place and story.


When you look back at the history of American Journalisma nd examine that passion for place and wtory, what you'll often find is the Ethnic Press, and nonwhite journalists, covering a story that on one considers important.  Whether it's Frederick Douglass making the case for Abolition of slavery, or Henry McNeal Turner reporting on the role black union soldiers played in capturing Richmond, thus providing a turning point in the Civil War; or Ida B. Wells painstakingly describing the hundreds of lynchings that took place in the American South at the turn of the last century, the telling of stories that provided turning points in history were most often told not by the MSM.  In today's parlance, these reporters were hyperlocal - specific to one community, to one group.

Come forward a hundred years.  A Native American Newspaper, Akwesasne Notes, drew sustained attention to aluminum poisoning in well water and on the land in northern New York State.  Documentarian Emiko Omori's Rabbit in the Moon captured the pain and loss of Japanese families forced into internment camps while Congressional hearings took place.  More recently, the Latino Journal covered (and even encouraged) large scale immigration protests as mainstream papers touted the party line from Washington.  For most of these stories, MSM relegated coverage to the inside pages, or the back of the broadcast.

For the ethnic press, these stories were front page news.


NEXT:  why minority reporters make a difference, and why we're endangered



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