Sunday, December 17, 2006

About the Picayune's Coverage of Local Politics

4/01/07: I don't remember what I was going to write in this spot back in December, but it seems like a good spot to place a couple of Time Picayune op-ed pieces that I looked up on LexisNexis. Yes the T/P endorsed Landrieu, but it would be difficult to argue that the paper's coverage wasn't slanted in favor of Landrieu. In addition to the op-ed pieces that helped start the anti-Brinkley backlash, in effect an anti-Landrieu backlash, the paper also ran candidate profiles that portrayed the mayor as an independent-minded "maverick" and Landrieu an "insider's insider". That's not to say that the paper's coverage was slanted in favor of Nagin, but it certainly wasn't biased in favor of Landrieu. To illustrate my point, what follows are the above mentioned op-ed pieces:
May 14, 2006 Sunday
SECTION: METRO - EDITORIAL; Stephanie Grace; Pg. 99

LENGTH: 785 words

HEADLINE: The great backlash

BYLINE: Stephanie Grace


If Mayor Ray Nagin gets re-elected Saturday, one of the people he might thank is Tulane historian Doug Brinkley.


"The Great Deluge," Brinkley's quickie take on Hurricane Katrina that landed like a 716-page grenade in the middle of the mayor's race last week, is so over the top in its treatment of the mayor, so seething with ridicule, that a backlash is all but inevitable.

It's not that Nagin doesn't deserve scrutiny. But he doesn't deserve this.

What, exactly? Let's start at the beginning.

Nagin first shows up in Brinkley's account on the Saturday before Katrina as a nervous wreck, which, frankly, describes a lot of people that day. Brinkley goes on to paint Nagin as so clueless that he, according to that day's newspaper, had spent five hours that week -- "in the thick of the tropical storm season" filming a cameo in a locally-shot movie. But the shoot in question actually took place Aug. 23.

Equally offensive, apparently, was Nagin's unorthodox way of describing his acting fee, typical 'Ray Speak,' to borrow TP columnist Chris Rose's phrase, which Brinkley termed "a confusing inversion of words and ideas, all gathered up in tortured syntax, typically producing a mixed message, but marketed to his constituents as candor." And that's just the author's take on the mayor's saying "a buck fifty" in place of one hundred and fifty dollars.

Just wait 'til you get to the part about Nagin's outpouring on WWL, a cathartic tirade which many viewed as his most authentic moment. In Brinkley's view, the outburst was just more cynical Ray Speak.

"Knowing that federal troops were on the way gave him the opportunity to demand federal troops," Brinkley wrote. "That way his grandstanding words would be construed by the press to be decisive. It was the perfect, phony, cause-and-effect gambit."

There's lots more.

Also on Saturday, many politicos attended the funeral of longtime local Urban League leader Clarence Barney. Nagin was there too, to the stated surprise of one unnamed source, who said the mayor must have had things under control or he wouldn't have shown up. Readers have to flip to the footnotes to learn that the unnamed source was former Mayor Marc Morial.

Morial appears later in the book as a named source, taking a much less oblique shot at his successor. Nagin didn't have a disaster plan, Morial alleges, "because he was the disaster."

Pretty potent words coming from a man identified as the president of the National Urban League but not, notably, as a sworn adversary of Nagin.

Brinkley also turned to Nagin rivals for anecdotes, both widely quoted, purporting to prove that Nagin hid at the Hyatt across from City Hall and took too long to shower on Air Force One. The sources, Mitch Landrieu and Ron Forman, were interviewed while both were contemplating running for mayor themselves. Vanity Fair's excerpt discloses that. The book doesn't.

Ironically, both Landrieu and Forman seem to have stuck largely to a dispassionate account of Nagin's actions. It was Brinkley who added the harsh spin, likening the mayor, for example, to "a primping teenager" who "just wouldn't get out of the shower."

And so it goes. In print and in interviews , Brinkley calls Nagin pathetic and afraid. Over and over, he describes the mayor as "holed up," afraid to go into the Superdome, grab a bullhorn and reassure desperate folks that help was on the way. Nagin countered in the book that no bullhorn was available. And while it might have been a good idea to do so, what would have happened had he told people buses were coming, when no one knew if they were?

In fact, Nagin-watchers shouldn't be suprised that he shunned political theater. Despite Brinkley's histrionics, the Nagin of that week was the mayor we all know: Impulsive, short on follow-through, free-wheeling with statistics, averse to bureaucracy and tedious negotiations, maddeningly tone-deaf when it comes to public relations -- but ultimately well-meaning.

Whether that's the guy to lead New Orleans' recovery is a fair question. But even many of those contemplating a change or definitely voting against Nagin seem willing to cut him some slack for the storm's immediate aftermath.

A February CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of returnees actually found that a majority, 54 percent, actually approved of the job Nagin did in responding to Katrina. Gov. Blanco, President Bush and the hated FEMA fared much worse. The simple truth is that a lot of people still like the guy, and they sympathize with what he faced that horrible week.

If Brinkley's offensive reminds people of that, then he will have earned his thanks.

May 5, 2006 Friday

LENGTH: 642 words

HEADLINE: If we didn't weep, we weren't human

BYLINE: Jarvis DeBerry


My moment came Sunday morning, Sept. 4. When I walked into the sanctuary at Second Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, the congregation had already begun singing an Andrae Crouch composition taken verbatim from Verse 1 of the 103rd Psalm. Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

I had trouble with the second verse of the song, the one that repeats: He has done great things. First, there was a theological hurdle: How could I sing such a thing after the destruction I'd just seen? Then there was the physical hurdle: How could I sing while sobbing?

Soon after the strongest of the winds died down Aug. 29, I stood on Interstate 10 and looked down on people who had already taken extraordinary measures to keep their heads above the rising water. Three men paddling a boat yelled that they'd just left a house on North Miro Street where 13 people, including some elderly folks and a pregnant woman, were stranded. I don't know if the men realized it, but they, too, appeared to be in danger. There were power lines above their heads, and if the water kept rising, there was the potential they could be electrocuted.

After seeing those men paddling and that woman sitting on her roof and that old man with his arms thrown around an orange water cooler hanging on for life, after asking firefighters about the billows of smoke rising in the distance and hearing them say they'd have to let it burn, after seeing people wander the interstate barefoot and despondent or emerge from attic windows like so many wingless butterflies, I heard myself saying, "OK. My house is probably gone." There may have been resignation in my voice, but if so, that was the only emotion. That was neither the time nor the place to mourn. Nor was it the time to let worry about my house distract me from the important work ahead.

I held the tears at bay for six days. But on the seventh day. . .

That Sunday morning service wasn't the last time I cried. Nor was that cry the most cathartic. Such designation belongs to the weeping I did more than a month later in the parking lot of The Mall at Cortana on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge. I was on the phone explaining to a therapist how the loss of some family heirlooms made me a failure as a custodian and how I'd hoped that my mother would validate my guilt by yelling at me. My mother never yells, least of all at me, so there was no chance she'd bring down on me the punishment I thought my failure warranted. And yet, it was the fact that she didn't respond angrily that intensified my guilt and prompted me to reveal my anguish to a therapist.

Mayor Ray Nagin cried, too. We learn this from historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the upcoming book "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast," excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine. That's hardly remarkable. If Nagin had not wept, one would have to question his humanity.

Had another writer chronicled Nagin's alleged moments of sorrow, frustration, anger and fear, it probably would have come off as the kind of thorough history the public has come to expect. But in a television interview last year, Brinkley heatedly accused Nagin of having blood on his hands. In his written account, Brinkley relies on some of the mayor's political enemies as sources. As a result, his focus on Nagin's private emotional moments seems intended not to flesh him out but to humiliate him.

Perhaps that will play well in Peoria. Maybe Brinkley will find readers so far removed from our situation they'll find it easy to ridicule a weeping man. But here in New Orleans, the man who hasn't wept sticks out, and the man who seeks approval for mocking the tearful would do well to search for another audience.

I have to give DeBerry credit, the column was well-written. It was also as dishonest as hell. As Bob Somerby might say, you can almost hear DeBerry say: Hey, Rube!

I'll also point out that neither DeBerry or Grace wrote columns defending city government in September and October of 2005, when pictures of flooded school buses were all over cable news and the internet. At that time the Picayune had huge online readership nationwide, by defending Nagin and city government then, they could have done a great service to the city's reputation. They waited until the election to defend the city (DeBerry did write one column in December), I'd say their timing was suspicious. Also, neither columnist considered the possibility that a national publisher might be more interested in releasing a book for Summer reading issues of national magazines than in the New Orleans mayoral election.

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