Big Fat Tuesday

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006; 10:39 AM

With more than 1,000 journalists in New Orleans, I wondered what the local press thought of this Mardi Gras invasion.

Not much, it turns out.

Ordinary folks, I'm sure, are grateful to have the national media show up in their devastated city, even if it's to contrast the parades, the floats and the partying with the ruined neighborhoods in places like the 9th ward.

But check out the columnists for the Times-Picayune.

One, Stephanie Grace, writes: "Our Carnival may be just another story to you, but it's much more to us . . . If you're going to talk about money, please understand that the bulk of the cost to stage Carnival is shouldered by private citizens who parade, not political leaders who roam the corridors of Congress with their hand out . . . Although we may look frivolous, the women behind the masks don't pretend for a moment that nothing's wrong . . . All I ask is that you tell our city's carnival-season story with care giving proper weight to both the joy and the sorrow."

Another columnist, Angus Lind, recalls the joys of hoodwinking out-of-town scribes. After some drinks, Lind would show around a visitor, who would ask: "What's this about? Where are the women baring their breasts? Where's the debauchery? This is dull. I can't write about this. My editor won't believe me."

Lind would explain the more mundane reality: "Write about that, news guy. Explain it. Interpret it. Analyze it. Put your spin on it. Make it deep.

"The problem is Mardi Gras is more than an event. It's a spirit in your soul that is cultivated through time, through music, through bloodlines, through constant parades and festivities. And basically, like a lot of things in New Orleans, it defies explanation."

NOLA needs many things, including money just to keep basic services going and a clear rebuilding plan for those who want to return. But most of all it needs public attention, from a news media that rarely has the patience to stick with a story for more than six months. Some anchors have gone back time and again; U.S. News just did a special issue on post-Katrina life. But the danger is that New Orleans and the Gulf slide onto the back burner. So if it takes a Mardi Gras, debauched or not, to draw journalists there like a magnet, so be it. The real test will be how many keep it up long after Fat Tuesday has come and gone.

But the locals aren't giving up: "Most New Orleans residents say they still face serious problems in finding housing, arranging home repairs, obtaining medical care and getting such basic city services as garbage pickup," says USA Today . "But six months after Hurricane Katrina, three of four of those now in the city say they're optimistic about its future."

Of course, this poll doesn't include the half of the population that had to leave town and hasn't come back. They might be less optimistic. Of those in New Orleans who were reached, and have phones, "52% of respondents were white, 37% black. In the 2000 Census, the city was 67% black, 28% white."

Speaking of polls, this CBS survey contains more bad news for Bush: "The latest CBS News poll finds President Bush's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, while pessimism about the Iraq war has risen to a new high."

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