In the fall of 2005, Susan J. Douglas, a University of Michigan communications professor, wrote two consecutive “Back Talk” columns on Hurricane Katrina, which, 15 years ago in August, flooded New Orleans and killed more than 1,000 people. In the first, “The Margins Go Mainstream,” Douglas examined the media’s coverage of the disaster:
[As] the flooding began, the press went into its usual disaster-mode reporting. As early as the next day, the AP began reporting about massive looting. By Wednesday, Black people as looters was the main story on Fox, and this news frame circulated in other media as well, as did still-unsubstantiated stories about rapes and murders.
Despite the damage done by this racist frame, it could not hold. Two photos from Yahoo News soon rocketed through cyberspace. … One from the AP showed a Black person wading through the flood captioned “looting,” the other from Agence France Presse of whites in the flood waters captioned “finding food.” … CNN’s Anderson Cooper said, “I wouldn’t call it looting. What I have seen is desperate people kind of wandering around.” By September 1, the story had shifted, with a new emphasis on the victims being disproportionately poor and Black. …
Katrina was a perfect storm journalistically, but will such coverage be restricted to this particular horrific event? … The reporting of the national news organizations will answer the question. But a brief period in which the country’s failed war on poverty, its institutional racism and the utter bankruptcy of a “CEO presidency” were all lead stories is testimony to what can happen when those at the margins of the mainstream media (and of our country) finally get the podium they deserve.
In her second column, “Missing Their Moment,” Douglas turned her eye to Congress’s response:
Katrina exposed the nation’s continuing failures to combat poverty and racism; … it showed that you actually need a functioning federal government; and it revealed our contempt for the elderly and the sick. …
Hurricane Katrina has created the moment for a true paradigm shift in American politics, because many Americans have actually become scared about what it means to have an eviscerated, dysfunctional federal government. That’s what Democrats would hear if they listened to their base, instead of shunning it as their own advisors have convinced them to do. If they miss the Katrina moment, it will go down as one of the biggest political blunders of the early 21st century.
Fifteen years later, another perfect storm is upon us. The pandemic is killing hundreds of thousands, laying bare a class and racial divide. People are rising up against a neo-fascist president and his GOP enablers who have mishandled both the pandemic and the George Floyd protests. In 2035, let’s hope “In Those Times” will look back at 2020 as a period in history when the paradigm did shift, when America changed course and restructured our national priorities.
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.