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In Covering Hurricanes, Media Should Focus on Poverty and Climate Change

“Some people faced with a disaster can’t just pick up and leave.”

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Janine Jackson: You still sometimes hear things like “disasters don’t discriminate,” or “it’s wrong to politicize a tragedy.” But as we continue to assess the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, it seems like maybe we’re moving a bit beyond that. Sure, we know that no one ordered up a hurricane, but public policy and political choices do play a role, do make some disasters worse than they might be, and do leave some people more vulnerable than others. Media may be moving beyond “nature, what are ya gonna do?,” but where will they end up? Accountability, translated through the corporate media machine, often winds up just being blame — and blame and accountability are not the same thing. It’s not a question of who to be mad at; it’s about who has the power to make things different, and what should they do? Media themselves are, of course, important players here, so what can we say about their work so far in covering this natural, and not-so-natural, disaster?

We’re joined now by journalist Neil deMause; he writes often about social policy issues for various outlets, including And he’s author of the book The Brooklyn Wars, and co-author of Field of Schemes. He joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Neil deMause.

Neil deMause: Good to be here, Janine.

We don’t need to cram Hurricane Harvey into a comparison with Hurricane Katrina; they aren’t the same. But in terms of media, one of the things that people remember about Hurricane Katrina, besides irresponsible and straight-up racist reporting, was mainstream media “discovering” poverty, and the combination of poverty and racism. There was a kind of a lightbulb for a minute there, and media outlets promised that they wouldn’t forget what they learned. Is it your sense that, generally, looking at the coverage of Harvey, media outlets have retained much of that purported lesson?

I would say that the media have retained a little bit of the lesson? I think the coverage has gotten somewhat better in some small ways, and has not especially improved in some larger ways. I think you have not seen the kind of overtly racist coverage of, you know, people looking for supplies, and calling them “looters” when they are people of color, that you did after Katrina. I think you see a little bit more sympathy for the people who are trapped in this disaster.

But at the same time, what the lesson of Katrina supposedly was — again, for that one minute that the lightbulb went off — was the realization that oh, there are some people who, when faced with a disaster, can’t just pick up and leave, not because they are afraid to or are too stubborn to leave their homes, but because they don’t have the resources. And that’s the kind of thing that you would hope the media would be exploring more when you have another disaster of this scale, and I don’t think we have seen an awful lot of that so far.

There still is this idea that a disaster is an equalizer, when what it really does is call attention to real differences that exist, such that different people just can’t react the same way. And one of the things that I know you have been thinking about relates to insurance, even. As simple as that.

So there’s been a fair bit of coverage about the fact that only around one-fifth of homeowners in the Houston area have flood insurance. And I was just watching CNN, and they were again talking about what is the government going to do, and how are we going to address the fact that there is going to be a huge need for additional aid. Those are good questions to ask, but at the same time, are you also asking why people choose not to, or can’t afford to, have flood insurance, or are not getting it? And there have been some indications that one reason is that the National Flood Insurance Program has been running short on cash, both because of the series of storms that we’ve had, thanks to climate change, and more devastating storms, thanks to both climate change and the fact that we have more sprawling development that is getting in the way of these storms.

On top of that, there is underfunding, and President Trump has been talking about cutting funding for the Flood Insurance Program, which would force them either to scale back on the flood maps that would enable people to determine whether they are actually in need of flood insurance, or if they went and paid for it out of the program’s own pocket, then you would have to raise premiums and price people out of affording flood insurance. Again, it’s a complicated series of dynamics that you have to look into, and the coverage mostly stops short of that. It’s just been, “Oh, too bad, people don’t have flood insurance, what are you gonna do?”

It’s not that it’s not sympathetic, exactly, but if it doesn’t go deep enough, then you sort of have to wonder how sympathetic is it, if it’s not really going to get at the root of these problems? A few times, I’ve heard that, oh well, Houston doesn’t have zoning. But I haven’t really seen it spelled out how that might affect impacts from something like this.

Right, and there are a couple ways. One is that when you don’t have zoning, you can have a lot of sprawl into areas that, otherwise, you possibly shouldn’t be building in, because these areas are needed as reservoirs for water when you do have a flood. The other piece that there has been a little bit of coverage about is the chemical facility that is having fires. There’s a lot of petrochemical facilities in close proximity to low-income communities in the Houston area. And again, there has been a little bit of coverage of that; Democracy Now! talked about it a bit, and the Houston Chronicle had some coverage of it before the storm. But, again, these things are very easy for the media to start looking into, once you have all this attention on Texas, and instead we’re largely getting the helicopter of the hour, and let’s see the latest rescue, but not actually talking to people being rescued about what got them into this circumstance, and what is going to prevent this from happening in the future?

Of course, we hoped that the discovery of the nexus of poverty and racism, and how that affects people’s lives day to day, we hoped that would encourage media to look at that all the time, and not just during times of disaster. But having said that, there will, very sadly, be many chances for media to explore the connections between climate change and its impacts, and poverty. They could be doing that even when there isn’t a hurricane, right?

Oh, absolutely. Again, the broader problem, like you say, is that the media tends to look at everything — except for something like homelessness, that has to be looked at through poverty — they tend to look at everything through the lens of this mythical middle-class everyperson. Right? And the idea that you have around a third of Americans who are living either in poverty or near poverty, and that maybe we should be looking at, whether it’s climate change, or any other issue, how it’s going to affect them, let alone how it’s going to affect the much broader group of people living in poverty worldwide, a lot of whom are going to be hit by climate change a lot worse than anyone here. That never really seems to come up.

And, again, I’m happy to see that the coverage has not been terrible, and that at least there’s been occasional glimpses of trying to examine people’s economic situations and how it impacts what happens in a disaster like this, but it seems like we really still have a long way to go before you start to have that lens being applied to every sort of different political issue, including climate change.

I did see someone note, or a few places note, that the Texas Border Patrol checks were going to stay in operation, so people who are out of status or undocumented might be making a choice between do I go out on the roads, or do I stay home and possibly die? It’s true that it’s complicated, that there are a lot of interconnected issues, but it just seems that it’s not politicizing it to say that hey, this actually has something to do with immigration policy, it also has to do with a number of other things, and maybe this is an opportunity to get into them, rather than a deflection from the “drama” story.

Yeah, that was something that the media realized for about two seconds after Katrina, the idea that there are people in this country who cannot just pick up and get into their car and rent a hotel room for a couple of weeks when they need to get out of danger. It’s something slowly trickling into the media, but it’s very, very slow. For example, that story about the immigration checks, right. That that was not seen as politicizing it, and I think that was fairly well-covered, initially; I haven’t seen any follow-up after the storm actually hit. But I think that’s a positive step, in that we actually can talk about these issues. Whether we actually are talking about these issues in the media, that’s another step beyond.

And then also, who do we talk to when we talk about them? There’s always the question of sources. And some people may have seen the CNN situation in which, I’m not sure if they pre-interviewed this woman or not, but this woman basically said, “People are at the worst moment of their lives and you’re sticking a microphone in our face, and this isn’t the way to do it.” There’s a certain just human-to-human thing that has to happen for reporters, especially when they’re parachuting into a situation like this.

Which I think is one reason why a lot of the coverage has tended to be on the rescuers, the people who are going in and pulling people out, because that’s what they’re there to do, and they’re not going to feel like you’re imposing on them if you’re interviewing them. But at the same time, you then leave out a big part of the story. The job of journalists here is to figure out a way to tell the stories of the people who are caught in this, and why they’re caught in this, without just sticking a microphone at them, saying, “Hi, you just lost all your possessions, how does it feel?” That’s not easy, but at the same time, that’s what the job of journalism is all about, and I don’t think it’s impossible.

Let me just ask you, finally, about making connections. We did see mention of the fact that the Trump administration had overturned a rule that infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges, be designed to withstand the impacts of climate change. Even as we’re seeing a lot of focus on Melania’s stilettos, there are certainly national level, as well as state-level, things that are so relevant that you can also be including them in this story as well.

One of the things that I’m actually really encouraged by, even though it’s coming decades too late, is that there is finally discussion around Harvey, “Yes, climate change is making these storms worse.” It took an awful long time for that to be able to be acknowledged in the mainstream media, and I think it’s good that there is discussion of Trump’s overturning of that Obama-era rule around taking climate change into account. Again, the lesson here of all this isn’t that the media are continuing to do a terrible job, it’s that the media were doing such a terrible job of reporting all of these things a decade ago that incremental improvement is not happening soon enough.

It’s very much like the climate change story itself, right? We were doing not enough to address it 20–30 years ago, now we’re doing a little bit to address it, but we really do not have the time to make incremental improvements to the point where we’re really gonna get this down, I don’t know, 100 or 200 years from now.

We’ve been speaking with Neil deMause. He is the co-author of Field of Schemes and author of The Brooklyn Wars. And he will be writing something for us about Hurricane Harvey very soon. Thank you for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

My pleasure.