For a few days, it seemed every TV camera in the country was beamed on the New Orleans Superdome. Correspondents endlessly described the hellish conditions inside, so we all bore witness to anarchy, although who knows how much of what we heard was true. Most of the pretty faces didn't venture inside to get a first-person look, or if they did, hightailed it out of there when the first strand of hair got mussed.
Pack journalism is synonymous with the broadcast media. TV reporters were elbow-to-elbow telling the same story of hell breaking loose in the vicinity of the Superdome and later the Convention Center. They couldn't venture elsewhere, they said, because everywhere else was flooded and/or too dangerous.
We folks in the print media aren't necessarily less full of baloney, but we do have an advantage of being more diverse and mobile. Thus it was that while most of America was fixated on the breakdown of law and order in downtown New Orleans, one intrepid reporter ventured into a flooded rundown neighborhood. It turned into an article in the Chicago Tribune that told a most revealing tale of a small group of survivors who were getting around in makeshift boats to check on one another and share whatever meager provisions they could scrounge.
Authorities had told them to evacuate to the Superdome, but they had been there, done that. Several years before, when a previous hurricane seemed headed in their direction, city leaders did a dry run of the Katrina evacuation by opening the huge domed stadium as an emergency shelter. That hurricane veered away and citizens were huddled inside for a much shorter stay. Yet, the experience was bad enough that people in this neighborhood wanted no part of it again. They'd rather take their chances in the underwater homes and streets they still regarded as a community. They trusted their neighbors more than the authorities. I have no idea what happened to them afterward, though I suspect they fared no worse than the Superdome refugees.
These neighborhood people were all poor and black, as were most of those caught by the TV cameras looting stores and blaming George Bush for their plight. If these folks expressed similar sentiments, the reporter chose not to mention them. More likely, they were too busy helping one another to think of anything else.
This little story, buried among thousands of Katrina-related articles that appeared over weeks of coverage in newspapers across the land, was overwhelmed by all those focused on the blame game. The media, along with many politicians, shy away from stories showing that individuals have some ability to shape their own destiny without guidance and approval from government authorities.
And when those authorities goof, it turns into a contest of who can yell “Gotcha'” the loudest. Katrina postmortems made it pretty conclusive that authorities at local, state and federal levels blundered in various ways. What nobody puts into perspective is that the man-bites-dog story would have been if all of them had done their jobs perfectly. It used to be taken for granted that mistakes accompany any large-scale endeavor owing simply to the imperfectability of people.
Not long ago I read Stephen Ambrose's biography of Dwight Eisenhower, one of many books I have consumed about World War II. I suspect that if Ike had to work amid today's media circus and without the wartime censorship of his era, he would have been lost to history as a failed commander, probably sacked before D-Day. The campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy were botched in many ways. Today's media would have raked Ike over the coals over lives lost because the massive aerial and battleship bombardments of Normandy's coastal defenses did virtually no damage. Thousands of Allied soldiers fell to “friendly fire” amid battlefield confusion throughout the war. Fatuous TV reporters would run out of breath second-guessing every tough call.
Yet, the good guys prevailed in part because their commanders made slightly more good decisions than bad ones. Mostly it was because, as Ambrose made abundantly clear in his D-Day and Citizen Soldiers tomes, the real heroes of WWII were the enlisted grunts and company-grade officers who every day had to rely on their own initiative and instincts to survive more than orders from above.
Similarly, the real heroes of Katrina are thousands of individuals and small organizations taking part in the rescue and recovery operations, mostly under the radar of the national news media. While attention is focused on FEMA and the Red Cross, innumerable little bands of citizens are volunteering money, time and sweat to help out, and they are doing so effectively.
One of our own is participating in such a mission. Tim Fausch, who serves as BNP Media's Architecture & Construction, and Plumbing Group Publishing Director and the ultimate boss of this magazine's staff, at this writing is down in the Gulf Coast area with fellow parishioners from his church distributing supplies and helping out with grunt labor. They represent all that is good about America, which despite what you keep hearing on the news, is plenty good.<<