Un-covering race, covering Katrina
Having read some of the comments on the previous posts, first let me clarify my position on looting -- which we all agree is restricted to stealing out of desire and not need. Yes, this is wrong and no black commentator I've read or heard, be it Ofari Hutchinson or Al Sharpton, is claiming otherwise. What I was pointing to was the absurdity of focusing on cracking down on looting -- reprehensible as it may be -- when surely the top priorities ought to be one, saving lives and two, cracking down on violence, be it gun-wielding thugs or rapists. In a crisis, resources are always limited and we need to figure out what to focus on first. And I would put punishing looters a distant third on my list of priorities. And Noonan is entirely wrong to focus on looting and not say a word about the fact the real "tragic piggism" here was displayed by a government too heartless to shell out the money to evacuate everybody irrespective of their economic means.
Since my last post there have been other people talking about race/poverty in the mainstream media. Here is a good and bad example of how the media deals with race. It's always easy to pick on an elitist like Noonan, but it's more interesting to focus on someone like Jack Shafer of Slate whose article raise the question: Why is no one in the media talking about race/class even though it's staring them in the face? His answer:
My guess is that Caucasian broadcasters refrain from extemporizing about race on the air mostly because they fear having an Al Campanis moment. Campanis, you may recall, was the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president who brought his career to an end when he appeared on Nightline in 1987 and explained to Ted Koppel that blacks might not have "some of the necessities" it takes to manage a major league team or run it as a general manager for the same reason black people aren't "good swimmers." They lack "buoyancy," he said.
Not to excuse Campanis, but as racists go he was an underachiever. ... His racism, which surely blocked blacks from potential front-office Dodger careers, was the racism of overwhelming ignoranceÃ¢â‚¬â€a trait he shared (shares?) with many other baseball executives.
This sort of latent racism (or something more potent) may lurk in the hearts of many white people who end up on TV, as it does in the hearts of many who watch. Or, even if they're completely clean of racism's taint, anchors and reporters fear that they'll suffer a career-stopping Campanis moment by blurting something poorly thought out or something that gets misconstrued. Better, most think, to avoid discussing race at all unless someone with impeccable race credentials appears to supervise -- and indemnify -- everybody from potentially damaging charges of racism.
Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can't make an error without destroying careers. That's a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of last night's anchors could have asked a reporter, "Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we're seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we're airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans." [LINK]So here we have an article that tries to make a race-sensitive point but using an astoundingly racially-insensitive argument -- as in, the PC patrol (which is always code for minority or women's groups) is gagging the well-meaning white folks in the press. The irony is that the ham-handed article left me wondering whether it may, in fact, be a good thing that white journalists on TV don't talk about the race angle -- but then we wouldn't have the wonderful Keith Olbermann.
Here one white journalist in the MSM who knows how to tackle the race/poverty angle, including the issue of looting (though how ever did he escape Shafer's attention and that of the ever-dreaded PC patrol?). His show last night was a great example of good, tough journalism that isn't afraid of talking about difficult issues. Olbermann underlined the humanity of the victims, refusing to lump the poor black folks -- criminals, victims -- into an undifferentiated mass, which is the other fallout of the media silence that Shafer fails to mention. Here's just a taste:
Something to reemphasize here. Those transcendent images and comments were from Americans at the New Orleans Convention Center, the place the government told them to evacuate to. Those arenÃ¢â‚¬Ëœt looters, loiterers, or troublemakers. Those are people who followed instructions, and then saw the system break down around them.But you should really check it out, including the amazing eyewitness testimony from NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbada, who drops all pretense of journalistic objectivity to issue an impassioned plea for the people stuck in the Convention Center. [Transcript]
I also want to add this: We all lose when someone cannot talk about race in America because of the color of their skin. Jack Shafer is right in this. But we don't gain anything by blaming some invisible group of people for our silence. Shafer doesn't clarify who would end these journalists' careers, but it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out just who raised hell about Campanis' remarks. So if you dissect his argument, he is implicitly blaming black people for the fact that white journalists won't talk about race. And that's pretty darn offensive.