Sunday, August 31, 2008

CBC Framing of Gustav Validates Distortions About Katrina

Even as I worry for people living on the Gulf Coast, I'm disgusted by this coverage by CBC. The story has been changing over the course of the day, but here are the current first few paragraphs of the CBC website's coverage of Hurricane Gustav, which is set to hit the U.S. mainland tomorrow or Tuesday.

With Hurricane Gustav just a day away from making what could be a damaging hit on New Orleans, the mayor pleaded with residents to leave the Louisiana city and announced that those who stay face a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Mayor Ray Nagin said 1,500 police officers and 2,000 National Guard troops will be patrolling the streets of the city, which on Sunday took on the eeriness of a ghost town as thousands of people heeded a mandatory evacuation order.

City and federal officials are clamping down on New Orleans to prevent the kind of lawlessness and chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

"Looters will go directly to jail. You will not get a pass this time," Nagin said. "You will not have a temporary stay in the city. You will go directly to the Big House."

The key thing to getting at the politics of how this story is written is to keep in mind that everyone will be reading it with some sort of reference to the destruction of much of New Orleans three years ago by Hurricane Katrina. In that tragedy, a powerful hurricane (though potentially less powerful than Gustav) combined with social circumstances to kill a lot of people, put many more through some pretty horrible circumstances, and destroy neighbourhoods that the powers that be have refused to recreate in any way that will welcome back the majority of those displaced. They key social causes of the disaster were idiotic capitalist development of wetlands that destroyed natural flood protections, chronic underfunding of human-made infrastructure that would protect against flooding, and the lack of and unwillingness to deploy public resources to allow people living in poverty (mostly African American) who lacked resources to evacuate on their own to get to safety during key moments just before and just after the storm.

After a brief moment of mainstream shock and outrage at all of this, the narrative of the dominant media did its best to sweep the human causes of the tragedy under the rug. The more systemic critiques of the causes never really reached the light of any mainstream day anyway, but questions of race and class were briefly permissable, though the extent to which that moment could be used was limited by the almost complete lack of available concepts and language in mainstream U.S. media discourse to usefully deal with such things. And the moment was quickly defused by employing two narratives to confuse, distract, and deceive. The first completely erased the role of capitalism-induced poverty and government malfeasance by claiming that the vast majority of those trapped in New Orleans could have evacuated but chose not to. The other manufactured a furor about supposed looting, which depended on and reinforced the racist construction in the dominant white imagination of African Americans as inherently criminal. Though further investigation that never received as wide circulation as the initial fuss discovered that claims of looting were grossly exaggerated and that much of the "looting" was actually people doing what they had to do to survive, the image of "lawlessness and chaos" unquestioningly relayed by this CBC story has persisted in the public imagination.

Now take a look back at those paragraphs I quoted from the CBC story, or even take a look at the whole thing. The lead, through emphasizing the mayor's "pleading" and the "mandatory evacuation order," constructs leaving the city or not as solely about choice. Then you have several paragraphs devoted to anti-looting measures.

I wouldn't necessarily expect any mention of the ongoing capitalism-driven destruction of the natural environment that historically mitigated coastal flooding. But there is not a word about what has or has not been done since Katrina about the human-made anti-flooding measures. There is not a word about what supports have been given to people living in poverty to evacuate the city, with appropriate contrasts with last time. In fact, there is not even a mention that the city is in many ways a different place now than three years ago because of the ways in which developers and government officials have colluded to ensure that the destroyed neighbourhoods, which were predominantly poor and working-class and mostly African American, are recreated in ways that are more useful to capital and that are excluding many of the people who originally called them home.

This coverage by CBC is really gross, and disrespectful to those killed and displaced by Katrina.

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