In a Party Mood, USA Today Gets It All Wrong

USA Today sings the praises of the citizens of New Orleans, while failing to understand just who - and how many - they are.

Yesterday, as New Orleans celebrated the climax of its first Mardi Gras since Katrina, USA Today ran a cheery front-page story headlined “In New Orleans, 4 out of 5 want to stay there.”

Based on the findings of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, the paper reported that while most of New Orleans’ residents say they still face serious problems with such basics as obtaining medical care and garbage pickup, “six months after Hurricane Katrina, three of four of those now in the city say they’re optimistic about its future. By a 4 to 1 ratio, they want to stay.”

While it will take awhile, New Orleans is “on the mend,” the paper said, adding that “The signature spirit of the Big Easy — including a tradition of staying put that is rare in this mobile nation — has survived among those who have made it back.”

The paper did note that the city’s racial composition has changed — in the Gallup poll, 52 percent of the participants were white and 37 percent were black, compared with the 2000 Census, in which the city was 67 percent black and 28 percent white — and that “blacks are having a significantly harder time than whites” after the storm. Nevertheless, the paper quotes Dent Hunter, a black home repairman who “lost everything” and is “optimistic about the city’s future” (“It’s going to take about 15 to 20 years before it can really get back to the way it was, but I’m still going to be here”) to exemplify its finding that in spite of their difficulties, “African-Americans are as determined as whites to stay.”

This discussion of New Orleans’ population, however, ignores a huge beaded elephant in the room — and only in its second-to-last paragraph does USA Today finally deign to acknowledge that creature: “The city’s population was 484,000 before the storm. City Hall now estimates it at less than half that number.”

Unfortunately, that elephant stomps USA Today’s rosy spin on things to bits.

Of course most of the diehards who made it back to the Crescent City want to stay there; that is not at all surprising. Burying the huge asterisk that more than half of the city’s population did not want to return (or could not), however, is disingenuous, and the story’s presentation and emphasis — and the lingering impression it consequently conveys — bears little relationship to the bleak reality New Orleans faces.

Moreover, USA Today’s 484,000 figure is not correct — as even a complementary story inside the paper indicated. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans had a population of 484,674 back in 2000, a figure which had shrunk to 462,269 by 2004 (the last pre-storm Census estimate available). And from that pre-Katrina population, “city officials estimate 189,000 have returned,” as the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Sunday (we’re going to trust them on this) — a more specific and thus more accurate figure than USA Today gives in either of its stories.

A better headline would have been “In New Orleans, Only 4 Out of 10 Stayed,” for that is the most gripping story that Katrina has left in its wake: the storm managed to abruptly accelerate the decline of one of America’s great cities, a decline that had been underway for decades. The demographers of Mayor Ray Nagin’s rebuilding commission, the Times-Picayune reported recently, “estimate that New Orleans will be home to 247,000 residents by September 2008, a little more than half the pre-Katrina population.” New Orleans’ population, in other words, has been rendered permanently smaller than that of Toledo, Ohio, pop. 304,973.

Meantime, if you’re handy with a calculator and put all the numbers together — something that USA Today did not do for its readers — you get this: What once was a city of close to half a million, 325,000 of them black, has been reduced to a current city of 189,000, only 70,000 of them black. In short, in Katrina’s aftermath, New Orleans has lost 255,000 black citizens, but only 37,000 white citizens, reversing the racial demographic that has marked the city for many decades.

And for the best perspective on the reality that those still in New Orleans face, we leave you with a recent editorial from the Times-Picayune in which the paper said its city was “in desperate straits”:

Right now entire neighborhoods in New Orleans are in ruins after sitting in water for weeks. The city has lost a majority of its residents, and demographers don’t expect it to reach its former population for years, if ever.

The city government isn’t just broke. It’s holes-in-your-pockets broke, flat-on-your-back broke, headed-to-the-poorhouse broke. With much of the tax base gone, it’s hard to see how City Hall will pay for all the services necessary to get New Orleans functioning.

The Times-Picayune is doing what a newspaper ought to: giving its readers an unblinking look at an awful truth. USA Today, by contrast, is painting pretty pictures unrelated to the facts on the ground.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.