Wiped Off the Map, and Belatedly Put Back on It

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005

The fact that most of those left behind in the New Orleans flood were poor and black is being treated by the press as a stunning revelation -- "A National Shame," as Newsweek's cover put it.

But not exactly a national secret.

"Apparently none of these ace reporters has ever set foot in Washington's Anacostia district, or South Central Los Angeles, or the trailer parks of rural Arkansas," writes Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks.

A Sept. 12 Washington Post story was headlined "Katrina Pushes Issues of Race and Poverty at Bush." An equally apt headline would have been, "Katrina Pushes Issues of Race and Poverty at a Media Establishment That Has Largely Ignored Them."

A database search of The Post for the past decade found one story that prominently mentioned the poor of New Orleans: a 2002 piece on a campaign to boost the minimum wage that cited the city's "40 percent poverty level." Far more typical of the Mardi Gras media was a 1995 Post story on how "the city's black neighborhoods come alive" with Sunday parades in the fall.

New York Times ombudsman Byron Calame found a similar record at his newspaper, unearthing only two articles about New Orleans in 10 years that "contained a few paragraphs on poverty and race."

The mounting problems of the urban poor, from unemployment to high infant mortality to family dysfunction, were long ago reduced to a blip on the media radar screen. Politicians rarely talked about them -- John Edwards, with his "Two Americas" speech in last year's presidential campaign, was an exception -- and reporters rarely prodded them on the subject. Bill Clinton spoke of publishing a book on race while he was president but never finished the project.

Newspapers and magazines, meanwhile, have been chasing suburban readers who appeal to upscale advertisers. The poor, whether in New Orleans or Newark, were, well, very '60s.

There have been exceptions, of course, certain journalists who have specialized in scrutinizing the problems of the underclass and efforts to alleviate them. And certainly the media have covered the policy debates over welfare reform, subsidized housing, school vouchers, affirmative action, out-of-wedlock births and other issues that affect the poor. But poor people themselves were relegated to an occasional walk-on role -- until the levees broke. "TV dislikes poor people," says Newsweek, because they're a "downer" and bad for ratings.

"Katrina suddenly made America's invisible poor very visible," writes Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. Brooks, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's law school, wrote in her Los Angeles Times column: "It took the destruction of a major American city for the media to notice the Third World here at home."

But why is that? This is not a story, like whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that was difficult to get at. But journalists rarely venture into impoverished neighborhoods these days, except for quick-hit features. When a woman from one of these communities goes missing, it doesn't attain the status of a Natalee Holloway drama.

Covering the 37 million people who live below the poverty line -- the percentage has increased for four straight years -- is not as easy as, say, covering advocates who claim to speak on their behalf. Many of the poor are wary of intrusive journalists, don't carry cell phones and don't speak in snappy sound bites. The same goes for race: It is far easier to write about the politics of race -- President Bush appointing the first two black secretaries of state, or refusing to speak to the NAACP -- than to probe the impact of federal policies on the lives of minorities. And the problems of generations of low-income broken families who seem unable to escape the cycle of poverty can be depressing fare.

The last time race and poverty became a front-burner media issue was after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but that quickly faded. As the country begins the long slog of rebuilding New Orleans, with many of its poor scattered in other states, how long before the press moves on to more scintillating subjects?

Footnote: The media have had a fine old time ridiculing Michael Brown, who quit last week as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as a former Arabian horse expert with no background for the job. And as The Post reported, five of the agency's top eight officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters. But why did journalists never get around to pointing this out in the past? Why are agencies such as FEMA never covered until disaster strikes? A database search found only one story and an editorial about Brown's 2003 nomination as FEMA chief. Both were in the Denver Post -- Brown is from Colorado -- and both described him as experienced because of his tenure as the agency's No. 2 official.

Opinions Aren't Free

Beginning today, it will cost you to read Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Paul Krugman, David Brooks and 18 other New York Times columnists online -- $49.95 a year, to be exact.

But the executive in charge of the move -- and perhaps those at other news organizations giving away their material online -- hopes the Times can demonstrate, in a traditionally free arena, that money can be made by charging for premium content.

"It should work, but this is the Internet and you're always experimenting and testing," says Martin Nisenholtz, a Times Co. senior vice president. He believes that as many as 200,000 people may sign up -- but also expects a drop-off in overall traffic because "we're gating one of the most popular parts of the site."

Times Select will offer video (of columnist debates, for example), expanded pieces from editorial writers and access to archives (eventually back to 1851). Among the opinion, business, local and sports columnists, Frank Rich will field questions in a blog-like forum and John Tierney will host a book club. But what about their diminished audience? "They may have mixed feelings about the fact they won't be read as much around the world, and I don't blame them," Nisenholtz says.

Weekend Warrior

The Wall Street Journal made news Saturday -- by publishing a paper.

The Journal's Weekend Edition -- which is going to all current subscribers at no extra charge and is available on newsstands for $1.50 -- represents a gamble that the weekday business bible can lighten its image and attract sufficient advertising.

The front page is quite Journal-like, but with a consumer flavor -- stories on Wal-Mart trying to become trendy and FAO Schwarz looking for hot new toys -- plus an oversize feature on a Colorado chef trying to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. The Money & Investing section forgoes the usual fare on hedge funds and derivatives for pieces on futures contracts that protect the value of your home and the advantages of using credit cards for cash rewards, not airline miles.

The biggest departure is the Pursuits section, whose centerpiece is "Chefs Gone Wild" -- a stomach-churning report on such "experimental" foods as rabbit pizza, mustard ice cream and raw-lamb meatballs. Other pursuits include Disney's Hong Kong park, designer outlet stores, pre-college stress, Wynton Marsalis's favorite jazz, Notre Dame football and women's bikes -- all "tailored to appeal to influential business decision-makers," as a Journal release puts it. Translation: Folks with plenty of disposable cash.

A decade ago, such pieces would have seemed out of character. But as the weekday paper has added Personal Journal and Weekend Journal, it has discovered there is life -- and journalism -- away from the corporate office.

Mogul Envy

What, a glittering career as a rock impresario and $4 billion in the bank aren't enough for David Geffen?

Now, apparently, he wants to buy the Los Angeles Times.

Small problem: Tribune Co., which bought the paper and the rest of Times Mirror five years ago for $8 billion, says it's not for sale.

The Times reports that Geffen expressed his interest over the summer in a meeting with Tribune Co. chief executive Dennis FitzSimons, only to be told no dice. Geffen, who promoted the Eagles and other music acts and helped found DreamWorks SKG movie studio, wouldn't comment to the paper he seems to covet. Maybe he just wants to stop all those Times stories on the battle for public access to the beach at his Malibu estate.

Note to other rich guys: Although circulation has slid from 1,018,000 to 902,000 since the Tribune purchase, the Times estimates that it's worth about $3 billion.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company