The elite doesn't understand the South

Posted: Sep 01, 2005 12:00 AM

I'm known to write occasionally that the rest of America doesn't understand the South. Now comes some clear and convincing evidence.

 As fate would have it, InsiderAdvantage, the company that I lead, just this week purchased the long-established Washington, D.C.-based Southern Political Report. Hastings Wyman, a widely respected political reporter in Washington, will continue to edit the publication.

 But as Hurricane Katrina approached, we were in the last stages of creating a daily web-based version of the report. Immediately, we called on all the resources of the Southern Political Report, including its vast network of contacts, many of whom live in Katrina's path.

 As early as Monday afternoon, we realized the storm was far more devastating than was being reported by the TV news networks. For starters, our sources said New Orleans would start to flood by daybreak Tuesday. They also explained how entire foundations of the Southern economy had been erased, such as the burgeoning casino resorts along the Mississippi coast.

 By late Tuesday night, we had been told off the record that the death toll of about 80 being announced would possibly swell into the thousands.

 So why on Tuesday night was network television airing shows like "Tommy Lee Goes to College," instead of providing wall-to-wall live coverage of this historic, catastrophic event? Where were the rock stars announcing soon-to-come mega-concerts to raise quick cash for the stricken region? And why in the world was the stock market rising both on Monday and Wednesday?

 I'll tell you why. It's because the know-it-alls in New York and Washington don't have a clue about the American South. They don't comprehend its political might and economic muscle, and thus the ultimately crippling impact Katrina is going to have on them, too. It's that simple.

 This isn't to knock the courageous and resourceful print and broadcast reporters on the scene or the media venues that have devoted practically all their column space or airtime to this cataclysmic event. 

 I'm aiming higher with my complaint -- at the top-level program directors and network executives who think that earthquakes in California and attacks on New York warrant the full attention of the world, but life-threatening emergencies in the swamps and "backwoods" of the South don't.

 Well guess what? They matter now.

 Let the word get out: While everyone in the storm's path is grateful for the efforts of so many across the nation, it's also clear that the disconnect between the top corporate and media leaders in America and the people of the South is far more serious than even I had imagined.

 Wednesday's declaration by the mayor of New Orleans that "thousands may be dead" -- whether confirmed or not at the time -- should have justified an end to regular TV network programming.

 It wasn't to be. One of my own local network affiliates -- like most others around the nation -- kept airing "General Hospital" via the network feed.

 You can bet that if New York City were underwater, and thousands were presumed dead with countless others' lives still hanging in the balance, these same networks would have suspended regular programming to cover every developing second of the disaster's unfolding events.

 These effete national executives just can't get a handle on the South, be it our politics -- especially in predicting our elections -- or our economic significance. They are always a day late and a dollar short.

 They think we're racists, when in fact the greatest peaceful mixing of races in the nation -- and maybe the world -- occurs in the South every day. Substantial African-American and Hispanic communities are an integral part of our economy and communities.

 They assume we are dumb and poorly educated. That ignores the massive improvements that have been made since the Civil War ended. That's when a dual set of second-class citizens was created overnight -- destitute whites, including many in the former planter class, and uneducated former slaves.

 Trace a line from Houston through Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Miami, and yes, what was once New Orleans, and you will see the clear outline of who controls Congress and the White House.

 We are the growth of America and its future.

 But it took days for the nation as a whole to even tip its hat to a natural disaster that has the potential to drag America into a full-blown recession.

 I'm American before all else. I'm proud of every part and each person in the United States. Like Frank Sinatra, I love New York. I travel to Los Angeles at the first chance.

 But this week, I speak the words no one else wants to say: The South has been hit with the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. And too much of America didn't want to notice until it had to.