Who Are Those People?

As thousands of weary and anxious people streamed into New Orleans’ Superdome in advance of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, dragging their few pieces of luggage behind them, one fact went strangely missing in most news reports: they are poor.

USA Today’s coverage was typical. In its lead story, an AP dispatch from Matt Crenson, the danger to the French Quarter was lamented high up, where Crenson wrote, “the water could reach 20 feet, easily submerging the district’s iconic cast-iron balconies and bars.” But there’s no mention of the people who might be swept away by those same waves.

And although a sidebar focuses on the fact that, as the headline puts it, “Poor, homeless, frail flock to the safety of Superdome,” it never makes the obvious class observation that anyone with enough money had boarded a plane or jumped behind the wheel and gotten the hell out of Dodge. Only the deranged or those with no real options stayed behind.

The New York Times, which recently spent weeks dwelling on class consciousness, did even worse. In the space of two paragraphs, the paper quoted two people queuing up for the ‘Dome. One was a British tourist, stuck in the city, unable to get out. The other was 55-year old Ernest Paulin, Jr., an unemployed welder, who had to leave his wood-frame house because he feared it would blow away. By interviewing these two as if they were representative of the people seeking shelter, the article blurs the reality that the people stuck in New Orleans are overwhelmingly the impoverished.

The Los Angeles Times must be lauded as the only major papers to say this out loud. Its lead article, headlined “Hurricane Lashes a City Abandoned,” begins with mini-profiles of one Bill Rau, who was able to spend $3,000 to buy six one-way tickets to fly his family out to Dallas, and John Higgins, who was hobbling “through New Orleans as the wind picked up, carrying what he owned — a purple comb, a radio and a pack of instant coffee — on his back.” The Times then went on to say, in the bluntest way possible, that this “served as a reminder that this is a city of haves and have-nots. And on Sunday, by and large, the former got out of town — about 1 million of the metropolitan area’s 1.6 million people, officials said — and the latter were left behind.”

“Ain’t that life?” the bedraggled Higgins asked the Los Angeles Times reporter.

In some newspapers it is. But not in most.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.