Hurricane coverage veers off course

Jonah Goldberg

9/21/2005 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

The press was blindsided again. As Hurricane Rita barreled toward Key West, television news executives were unprepared to deal with the lamentable divide this storm would undoubtedly reveal between gay America and straight America.

You'd think the media would have learned their lesson. After Katrina, the press corps waited a full two days after the storm hit before it was able to report that one of America's poorest and blackest cities was full of poor and black people. Surely, this time around the Fourth Estate would hit the ground running with up-to-the-minute exposes on the "Other" Other America and trenchant-yet-lachrymose essays on What This Says About America, that one of America's zestiest gay resorts was left to twist in the wind.

The questions raised by unlovely Rita are as painful as they are obvious. Will gays stay behind in disproportionate numbers in this disproportionately gay city? If so, Why? If gay marriage were legalized, could some of this disaster be avoided? Would George W. Bush have responded more quickly if the victims were just a tad less stylish? And, of course: Will the federal government help keep Key West festive?

Why weren't reporters standing at the ready to caterwaul about the wreckage at their feet? Cher albums and the collected writings of James Wolcott strewn about like beer cans and pizza boxes in an apartment yet to be transformed by the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

This all might sound a bit absurd, but this isn't far from where we are today.

Last week, at Nebraska Wesleyan University, I joined CNN's Carlos Watson at an event to discuss media bias. The subject of Katrina was thick in the air and while Mr. Watson clung to his status as an "objective" media analyst, he was keen to discuss the "race and class" angle of the story.

He fervently believed that if the media were more diverse, then the federal response to Katrina would have been more Johnny-on-the-Spot. Black folks and other minorities would have recognized the race and class issues sooner, and therefore would have raised a stink faster. As it was, it took two days after Katrina struck for the media even to mention race and class in a serious way.

This, quoth Watson, was proof of his very point. It took two days for the most important story angle of Katrina even to get discussed. I objected that perhaps the most important story angle wasn't in fact that a famously poor and black city was still famously poor and black. Perhaps, I suggested, the lead story was the fact that an enormous hurricane destroyed a major American city and much of the surrounding area.

If Mr. Watson were at the helm, his reports might have gone something like: This just in: Hurricane Katrina reveals New Orleans is full of poor and black people. We'll have full coverage. And, after sports, weather and a hilarious story about a water-skiing squirrel, a very sad report: New Orleans was destroyed last night by a hurricane of biblical proportions.

Watson conceded the point. But he remained resolute in his conviction that Katrina proved the dire need for more diversity in the newsroom.

This might show how deeply enmeshed in identity politics we have become, which is why I half-expected to see those stories about gays left behind in Key West. After all, there's plenty of diversity in the media on that front.

But I think the larger revelation of Katrina has less to do with identity politics and more to do with showing what various people think the government is for. We've heard constantly that it is a scandal of one sort or another that the (overwhelmingly black) inner city residents of New Orleans are so poor 40 years after the War on Poverty was launched.

Indeed, the underlying assumption of the War on Poverty (and the New Deal) that government should make sure no one is poor is now widely accepted on both the left and the right. The chief arguments between policymakers on the right and left are over means, not ends. One side, speaking very broadly, believes the rising tide of the market should lift all boats. The other believes the government needs to tug the smaller dinghies.

During the John Roberts confirmation hearings, which several Democrats tried to make about Katrina, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., claimed that the Constitution, rightly understood, should ensure that "each person in this great country, man or woman, rich or poor, white or black, whatever it might be, can really reach their full potential."

Mr. Watson seemed to believe that if only the media were more diverse it would have not only alerted the government to the "big story" it would have put the heat on government much earlier to ensure that everyone - even inner city New Orleans residents - had reached their potential long ago.

Personally, I didn't need a hurricane to show me the government wasn't up to the job liberals have set out for it.