The Media's New Orleans Burnout

By Howard Kurtz
Sunday, May 7, 2006

NEW ORLEANS I walked down the street next to a failed levee here the other day and saw house after house that had been pulverized by Hurricane Katrina. Eight months after the storm, and nothing, not a single cinder block, had been touched. An exterior wall of one home had been ripped away, revealing, amid the rubble, a sneaker, some batteries and a cardboard box for an NFL football. A thriving family once lived here, and in the next house, and in the house after that.

But it's old news, this tableau of destruction. Even if a reporter could track down the families on this block and recount each tale of woe, the camera lens would still be too close; it simply could not capture the magnitude of what happened to New Orleans last summer. And if you pull back the camera too far, you get those aerial shots we've all seen so many times, which provide a sense of the hurricane's scale but not of the human misery that each ruined home represents.

President Bush, who vowed in that floodlit Jackson Square speech last September that "this great city will rise again," was here again during my visit. But this time, aside from an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, the president's trip drew only modest coverage.

I understand why. Bush made no new proposals. He visited with residents and volunteers, and spent a few minutes helping with the construction of new housing. With no drama and no controversy, it was easy for the media to dismiss the trip as a photo op. The next day, the nation's front pages focused instead on rising gasoline prices, economic growth figures, the movie about United Airlines Flight 93 and a Spanish-language version of the national anthem.

We are in a short-attention-span business, always chasing the Next Big Thing, whether it's the Duke rape case or Patrick Kennedy's car crash. And eight months after wind, rain and floodwaters devastated this city, the media -- and perhaps a good chunk of the country -- are suffering from Katrina Fatigue.

Like many Americans, I've followed the Katrina story closely, but then tuned out for days when other news or the daily strains of life intervened. After eight months you assume they must be making some progress. Downtown and the French Quarter basically look fine; the worst damage by now must be limited to a few of the hardest-hit areas, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

But then you come here and see the devastation up close, and discover that things are far worse than you imagined. And you realize that, despite the millions of words and pictures devoted to the hurricane's aftermath, the normal rules of writing, photography and broadcasting are just not equal to the task.

When Katrina struck, television thrived on the dramatic footage of attempts to rescue thousands overwhelmed by water and wind or suffering under horrid conditions in such places as the Superdome. But the painfully slow reconstruction of a city taking place today doesn't yield great video; the absence of progress is the story. The 250,000 people who have been unable to return -- more than half the city's population -- are not easily available for interviews. And even if they were, I don't imagine producers getting terribly excited over displaced folks talking about having to stay in motels or trailers or with relatives.

Most of those left behind in the storm were poor and black -- "A National Shame," a Newsweek cover story declared last fall -- and it seemed, briefly, that we were on the verge of a national conversation about race and poverty. But it never materialized. And even though middle-class whites may have had the wherewithal to evacuate, many of the houses I saw in ruins clearly belong to them. But who wants to rebuild in a city with such spotty basic services and so many unanswered questions? And how do you cover this diaspora without bumping up against the limits of journalism?

We all have defense mechanisms to shield ourselves against tragedy overload. From the Asian tsunami to the Pakistani earthquake to the latest Midwestern tornadoes, it can be a bit much. Perhaps I believed that New Orleans must be making modest progress because it was comforting to think so, and besides, if it was still a huge, stinking mess, the media would tell us, right? But then I came here and encountered Ruel Douvillier.

I met the Fire Department captain because he was being interviewed by NBC's Williams, who was making his eighth trip here for a story that has become his cause. Douvillier has perhaps the most unenviable job around: He heads the search-and-rescue teams that, with the aid of sniffer dogs, go house to house, looking for victims of the storm who somehow still have not been discovered.

Two weeks ago, Douvillier found two brothers in the same house, casualties forgotten by time. And he believes there are many more. A dog led one colleague to an attic in the Lower Ninth Ward that contained a large, rotting fish, a sign that some of the remains may simply have washed out to the Gulf.

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