Friday, September 16, 2005

Disaster Reporting

Thanks to Rob Schoenbeck of The Cartel in San Antonio for sending this article. It fits with other posts about communicating in a disaster. Reportage is communication, for sure.

It’s a long piece (yes, you have to read to the end) from today’s London Times, bylined by Gerard Baker. All copyrights apply.

Space, food, medicine, protection:
it's better here in Barbara's hall of plenty

BARBARA BUSH. Don’t you just love her? Last week she put her elegant heel right into what her husband used to call deep doo-doo when she told a television interviewer that evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who had been housed in the Houston Astrodome were really very happy with their lot.

“What I’m hearing is that many of them want to stay in Texas,” the former First Lady said. “The hospitality has been so overwhelming. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Not since Louis XVI’s missus puzzled about the dietary choices of indigent Parisians has there been such an appalling display of aristocratic ignorance. How dare she? How could she? Even the White House winced.

But in the disgust that greeted her remarks in Highgate and the Upper West Side no one stopped to consider the possibility that Mrs Bush was, in fact, dead right.

Anyone who has visited the most deprived parts of America’s cities, rather than merely empathised with them from afar, would have no difficulty whatsoever with the proposition that the inhabitants would prefer an air-conditioned sports stadium with all the food they can eat, the country’s best medical attention and the benign security of National Guard protection to the hunger, sickness and lawlessness in which many of them live.

Large parts of Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago or Los Angeles already look, on their best days, as though they have been hit by natural disasters. I’m not at all surprised to hear that the fortunate who made it to Houston are eager to start new lives there, rather than return to the crime-infested housing projects of New Orleans.

But Mrs Bush touched on a larger truth, almost wholly obscured in the rush to judgment. Most of the attention has focused on how the Government failed in responding to the disaster. I have done it myself. Grand conclusions have been drawn about the (flawed) nature of American society. I’ve done a bit of that too. But little has been said about what the response of ordinary Americans — not mayors or governors or presidents — tells us about the strengths of that same American society.

Another lucky group of New Orleans evacuees has been housed not far from where I live in Washington at the DC Armoury, the local headquarters of the National Guard. This week, along with the truckloads of food, water and clothes, came something that will, in the longer term, be of even greater assistance, a group of eager employers looking for workers.

Forty-two local businesses participated in a job fair for the new homeless at the Armoury on Tuesday; more wanted to take part but couldn’t because there was limited space. Twenty of the 150 or so evacuees were hired on the spot. An official at the District of Columbia government involved in organising the event said that more were expected to be offered jobs in the next few days. The exercise was such a success that employers are demanding another one. If there’s anyone left still to hire it will take place in the next couple of weeks.

The story is being replicated across the country. The victims of Katrina are getting new opportunities. Some of it comes from an immense outpouring of compassion by Americans in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable contributions and unquantifiable help in housing families and schooling children. Some of it comes from the unsentimental compassion of the free market: the unerring capacity of the capitalist system to match those who have something with those who need it, whether it be labour, capital, goods or services.

Both tell us far more about the way this country works, the strengths of its values and people, than the bureaucratic bungling in Baton Rouge and Washington.

Of course you will almost certainly not have read or seen much about this, especially outside the US. The world has indicted America once again on charges of ineptitude and racism and has moved on to more important matters such as Britney Spears’s baby. For a variety of reasons this good news about the response of ordinary Americans is of little interest to the media. First, no self-respecting reporter wants to waste his time with insights into the better angels of human nature. No one ever won a Pulitzer or a Bafta recounting banal tales of man’s humanity to man.

Secondly, it really doesn’t fit too well into the stereotype that entrances most of the world these days. Anything that doesn’t show Americans as stupid, selfish, warmongering, religious bigots, half of them living in pampered luxury in garish purpose-built Italianate mansions, the other half downtrodden in the ghetto by Halliburton stock-owning fat-cats, isn’t going to make it to the front pages or the Ten O’Clock News.

But the main reason I think these recovery efforts by millions of people attract insufficient attention is that most people have become conditioned to thinking solely in terms of government’s responsibility. Of course, the bulk of the recovery effort must be paid from public funds as President Bush announced yesterday but most Europeans and — despite decades of a so-called conservative revolution — a large number of Americans, can’t think beyond the government.

Something bad happens: it’s government’s fault for not preventing it. It’s government’s responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And if the mess gets bigger, that’s government’s fault too.

The irony is that New Orleans is one of those cities where government-dependency had reached such levels that a kind of economic and social anomie had set in. For many of its victims the escape depicted by Barbara Bush is just what they needed.

In response to the huge flood that drowned the Gulf Coast in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge sent his secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, to head the mainly private-sector reconstruction effort. As quoted in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Hoover said, "I suppose I could have called in the whole of the Army. But what was the use? All I had to do was call in Main Street itself."

Thanks, Mr. Baker, for writing about what Main Street really means to America. Thanks, Rob, for passing it along.

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