With innovative visual analysis of TV news coverage, documentaries such as Trouble the Water and When the Levees Broke, and the HBO series Treme, this book investigates how media representations both shaped and contested collective memories of Katrina.
Anyone who was not in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of the city experienced the disaster as a media event, a flood of images pouring across television and computer screens. The twenty-four-hour news cycle created a surplus of representation that overwhelmed viewers and complicated understandings of the storm, the flood, and the aftermath. As time passed, documentary and fictional filmmakers took up the challenge of explaining what had happened in New Orleans, reaching beyond news reports to portray the lived experiences of survivors of Katrina. But while these narratives presented alternative understandings and more opportunities for empathy than TV news, Katrina remained a mediated experience.
In Flood of Images, Bernie Cook offers the most in-depth, wide-ranging, and carefully argued analysis of the mediation and meanings of Katrina. He engages in innovative, close, and comparative visual readings of news coverage on CNN, Fox News, and NBC; documentaries including Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water, and Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Elie’s Faubourg Treme; and the HBO drama Treme. Cook examines the production practices that shaped Katrina-as-media-event, exploring how those choices structured the possible memories and meanings of Katrina and how the media’s memory-making has been contested. In Flood of Images, Cook intervenes in the ongoing process of remembering and understanding Katrina.
Introduction. Where Y'at?
Part 1. Television News
Chapter 1. There Is No Wide Shot. Television News and Collective Memory
Chapter 2. Weather Citizens. Sunday, August 28
Chapter 3. These Are the First Pictures from the Air. Monday, August 29
Chapter 4. The Sort of Disaster Humans Cause. Tuesday, August 30
Chapter 5. The Walking Dead. Wednesday, August 31
Chapter 6. Over My Drowned Body. Thursday, September 1
Chapter 7. Not Sure What Is the Truth or Rumor Anymore. Friday, September 2
Chapter 8. A Big Corner Turned. Saturday, September 3
Chapter 9. A Violent Day. Sunday, September 4
Chapter 10. 99 Percent of It Is Bullshit. The Weeks After
Part 2. Documentary
Chapter 11. Familiar from Television. Documentary as Collected Memory
Chapter 12. A Requiem in Four Acts. When the Levees Broke
Chapter 13. Ain't Nobody Got What I Got. Trouble the Water
Chapter 14. How Can Our Past Help Us to Survive This Time? Faubourg Treme
Chapter 15. We Were Not on the Map. A Village Called Versailles
Chapter 16. Our Mayor. Race
Chapter 17. Re-Occupying New Orleans. Land of Opportunity
Chapter 18. Disappeared People. Law & Disorder
Part 3. Fiction
Chapter 19. My Truth Seems a Bit Inconsequential to Me Now. Treme's Truth Claim
Chapter 20. In the David Simon Business. Treme's Mode of Production
Chapter 21. The Continuance of Culture
Chapter 22. All These Trucks Got Bodies? Dramatizing Injustice
Conclusion. Desitively Katrina
Films and Media
There Is No Wide Shot
Television News and Collective Memory
When CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown went on the air at 10:00 p.m. Central Time, August 29, 2005, sixteen hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the news network still did not understand the extent or significance of the damage caused by the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of the City of New Orleans. Earlier that evening, NBC Nightly News and The Fox Report had largely focused on the storm's damage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Both NBC and Fox reported that New Orleans had been spared catastrophic damage due to a slight eastern adjustment in the hurricane's path before landfall. At 7:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the story was that New Orleans had been spared. But by 10:00 p.m. EST, CNN admitted the limits of both its newsgathering and its understanding of events on the ground.
News anchor Aaron Brown acknowledged and lamented the lack of a comprehensive view of events.
Brown: There isn't what we refer to in the business as a wide shot. We can't get, authorities can't get . . . we can't give to those of you who are watching that wide picture of what these scenes are like.
Brown's statement is both intentionally and unintentionally revealing of the processes by which television news usually constructs meaning. Unlike Brian Williams (NBC) or Shepard Smith (Fox), Brown regularly discusses on air CNN's technical approaches to producing news from events. Brown employs terms like "wide shot" to educate his viewers about aspects of news production. Through this light reflexivity, Brown addresses an audience sophisticated enough to understand that news is created, not "gathered."
However, Brown's statement, and the reports that provoked it, also reveal more than Brown's discourse about the relations between news and reality. Television news normatively produces wide shots, seemingly comprehensive and contained accounts of everything worth knowing about events. When television is working conventionally, wide shots construct understandings and arguments about the world that are largely persuasive. The construction of the wide shot is essential to television news' claim to report the real. Because the network lacked the images and information to construct a broad explanation of Katrina after sixteen hours, CNN was forced to acknowledge the limitations that are usually obscured by masterful, persuasive wide shots.
NBC also lacked a wide shot, but chose instead to focus on narrower views, reporting on relatively minimal damage in the French Quarter, while not yet recognizing or reporting on the breaching of levees and the flooding of the rest of the city. Fox provided a wider view of damage to the Mississippi Gulf Coast because the network had deployed significant resources to the state. Fox's reporting on New Orleans was partial and fragmented, and it too could not see or share the most important events occurring on Monday, August 29, 2005. Fox ended its broadcast with recently received aerial footage of the flooded city, but Shepard Smith indicated that the images were virtually a raw feed. He promised an edited package later, not yet recognizing the full significance of these images.
With a longer, two-hour format (ninety minutes longer than NBC, sixty minutes longer than Fox), CNN took different approaches to its coverage, presenting more live, real-time interaction between anchor Brown and reporters in the field. Toward the end of the first hour of NewsNight on Monday, August 29, 2005, CNN devoted more than twenty minutes to interviews by Brown with two colleagues: reporter Jeanne Meserve and cameraman Mark Biello. These segments were remarkable because of their length (NBC reports were typically 2:30, Fox slightly longer); format (interviews with staff rather than reports by staff); and, most crucially, the information revealed. In these segments, CNN first reported the extensive flooding caused by levee failures throughout New Orleans and the mortal threat caused by floodwaters to residents trapped in homes, especially in New Orleans East and in the Ninth Ward, but also in Arabi, Gentilly, Central City, and other neighborhoods.
Only a Rumor
Television news is a complex form of audiovisual communication and regularly conveys multiple messages, often articulating conflicting discourses. It communicates via recorded voices, images, sounds, sound effects, graphics, text on screen, and interstitial information, including promotions and commercials.
Television news advances the conceit that it is a form of journalism even as it is transformed into entertainment programming with commercial goals. It continues to draw upon the core claim of journalism to represent what is important to know about the world as it is. But television news takes events and elements of the real and converts those into "stories," short reports that follow familiar conventions and meet advertisers' and viewers' expectations of what is worth knowing about what is happening in the world. To watch television news is to accept the claim of the networks and channels that they are presenting the most important and valuable stories. In reality, the television news networks are presenting the stories they are prepared and ready to tell, based on choices of location, resource, technology, editorial perspective, and talent.
Television news works to produce stories from messy, raw, chaotic events, but it does so according to its own conventions, practices, values, and goals. In the process of converting reality into story, the news process itself becomes a primary focus. For example, in reporting during the first week after Katrina's landfall, NBC Nightly News would regularly focus on its own timeline of discovery, as if its process of creating news were reality itself. Similarly, on CNN, Aaron Brown talked during the week about what they had learned and reported, as if their learning curve was reality itself. As Negra and other scholars have argued, television news practice sought to convert Katrina into a media event, the reality of which existed in representation rather than in the world.
Television news is relentlessly focused forward. Broadcast network news (NBC) focuses on the news of the day, and cable network news (CNN, Fox) must feed a 24-hour cycle with content and thus focus on the news of the moment, chasing breaking stories and live reporting. Both models sacrifice significant, in-depth analysis, as stories are rushed onto screens. With only twenty-four minutes for nightly news stories, NBC's reporting is brief, with most segments only lasting two to three minutes. While cable news has more time and space, the emphasis on live-ness as guarantor of authenticity and significance also promotes speed over analysis. For these reasons, television news very rarely returns to revisit a report or to correct or clarify.
I have undertaken to reexamine television news reporting on Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans precisely because television news is usually ephemeral, made of voices and images that are presented and then superseded by the next stories, the next images. In its perpetual forward motion, television news approximates the analog process of interlacing by which television had created its images prior to the conversion to digital. Even lines, then odd lines, paint the screen, briefly sharing the frame before being replaced by the next images. Television news works against its own analysis since the text is constantly writing over itself.
By collecting the nightly news broadcasts of the major networks, Vanderbilt Television Archive makes possible the close analysis of news broadcasts. I have undertaken this retrospective work seeking to determine the visual rhetorics by which television news shaped understandings of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Television news has been a dominant contributor to the collective memory of Hurricane Katrina. By being first on the spot, with "live," breaking coverage, television news established the images and interpretations that would dominate understandings of the storm and flood, both during the week of August 28–September 4, 2005, and subsequently. Without the work of recovery and close analysis, however, we have only memories of fragments, images, and sounds, collected, traded, transformed. In a sense, without the sort of analysis I undertake in this book, we have only a rumor of the coverage of Katrina by television news. To understand what actually happened on the ground at the landfall of Katrina and after the failure of the levees protecting New Orleans, one must examine both the content of television news coverage and the perspectives and conventions guiding that coverage. To understand how we remember Katrina, we must examine how television news chose to cover the storm and flood.
Television news coverage of Katrina is significant for several reasons. First, due to failures in communications planning and infrastructure at all levels of government, FEMA, the military, and first responders depended on television news coverage for situational awareness (Fleetwood, 767). This coverage shaped official action on the ground. Second, television news shaped what national audiences saw and understood about the events in New Orleans. For national viewers without direct connection to the city, television news provided the dominant images and arguments about the flood. Third, television news coverage shaped the perspectives of the curators, archivists, and historians who would collect, preserve, and catalogue the material record of the storm, defining the possibilities for research into Katrina in the decades to come (see Shayt, 2006). In brief, television news coverage affected real-time official response to the storm and flood, framed collective memory of the storm for a national mass television audience, and shaped the terms by which the storm could be researched and reexamined over time. Because of its impact on all that we think we know about Katrina, television news coverage of the storm must be closely analyzed in order to argue for the significance of editorial choices and audiovisual rhetoric. I analyze television news coverage to argue how and why we know what we think we know about Katrina.
Rebecca Solnit has argued that large-scale disasters often result in differential responses (2010). Focusing on examples from Katrina to Haiti, Solnit argues that people on the ground most often respond to disaster by providing each other with mutual aid. She also notes that in response to disaster, political, social, and media elites often panic, with significant consequences.
Hurricanes disrupt communication. Katrina was especially disruptive of communication on the ground in New Orleans, as landlines and cell phones were unavailable or unreliable in the aftermath of the storm. The congressional panel investigating government response to Hurricane Katrina concluded that inadequate emergency communications at the city, state, and federal levels exacerbated the impact of the storm and flood, delaying rescue and response and forestalling evacuation and aid (Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate Preparation and Response to Hurricane Katrina, 2007). In the absence of clear, consistent, and accurate official communication, government at all levels turned to television news for information.
Independent investigative journalist A. C. Thompson reported that NOPD disaster communications failed on Tuesday, August 30, 2005; thereafter, police and responders were limited to short range communication (Law & Disorder, Frontline, 2010). In an interview for this book, Thompson noted that "policing is an information business." Without information, rumor and panic fueled decisions by police. Katrina was marked by the "CNN Effect," whereby television news coverage of events influenced official response to the events themselves. In the absence of official communication, television news regularly reported rumors as if they were facts. Once reported, rumors took on their own status. For example, on Thursday, September 1, 2005, Shepard Smith shared explosive rumors without reporting or verification.
Smith: We are told someone opened fire on a rescue chopper. We are hearing reports of rapes at the Superdome and murders at the Convention Center.
Instead of providing images to support these assertions, Fox showed two shots of three white men, wearing bulletproof vests and holding shotguns. These men are not identified, and their status and affiliation is not revealed. These images do not show gunfire, rape, or murder. They do document an increased and insistent focus on armed response to New Orleans citizens who survived the storm and flood.
Despite greater efforts to report stories, NBC and CNN also regularly reported rumors without corroboration and did not return to correct or re-report on rumors that proved false. As a result, television news coverage of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans picked up and extended confusion and panic on the ground; reported fears as facts; influenced decisions at the city, state, and federal levels; and contributed to decisions that yielded life and death consequences.
Television news networks also promoted elite panics at the national level. By reporting rumors of murders, rapes, and shootings, television news convinced many that the real threat in New Orleans was not the risk to survivors by floodwaters but the risk to reporters and responders posed by survivors themselves. On Monday, the networks were largely oblivious to the flooding of New Orleans. On Tuesday, they focused on the jeopardy faced by survivors. By Wednesday, the networks began to report on rumors of violence and on looting, pivoting from sympathy toward survivors toward distrust and fear. In turn, this demonization of New Orleans residents led to a shift in policy from focus on rescue and relief to a disastrous focus on security and control.
For example, on Tuesday, September 6, 2005, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, New Orleans Police Commissioner Eddie Compass claimed that "some of the little babies (are) getting raped" in the Superdome. On the same broadcast, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin offered his own vision of apocalypse: "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." Nagin concluded that New Orleans had descended into an "almost animalistic state" (Thevenot and Russell, 2005, 4). Though some have argued that racism guided the reporting on New Orleans after Katrina, Compass's and Nagin's performances suggest another dynamic at work: overwhelmed officials seeking to shift blame elsewhere.
The real horror of Katrina and the flood were the conditions experienced by the survivors. Americans expected their social contract with government to be honored, but city, state, and federal governments failed to protect, rescue, evacuate, and provide relief to citizens. Given this reality, efforts by local, state, and national officials to portray New Orleans citizens as violent, dangerous, and depraved suggest a desperate attempt to shift focus and blame from authorities to the survivors themselves.
Television news was complicit in this effort to demonize New Orleans residents. As subsidiaries of large media corporations, television news networks rarely mount substantive or sustained critiques of government. In the case of Katrina, television news often accepted and broadcast official perspectives without independent review, aiding authorities at all levels of government in efforts to shift responsibility. Television news also sought to apply familiar high-concept formulas, successful in attracting audiences during coverage of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (Jaramillo, 2009). Television news sensationalized events on the ground, drawing stark contrasts between authorities and citizens and offering justification for the increasing securitization of New Orleans. Finally, television news may have embraced the demonization of New Orleans residents as a relief from the overwhelming suffering dominating coverage on Tuesday, August 30. The television news networks responded to the panic and spin of officials and began focusing on the violence and depravity of New Orleans citizens as a way to defer fatigue in its audience.
Right Time, Wrong Place
The initial approach to covering Katrina employed what journalist Miles O'Brien described in an interview for this book as "the hurricane playbook," the predetermined moves that each network makes in response to a potential hurricane. That is, television news covers the storm track, interviews experts (National Hurricane Center), checks in on preparations, and interviews a few people. The hurricane playbook involves an anchor coordinating four or five correspondents, pivoting to weather and official experts. According to O'Brien, television news considers the reporter out in the storm ("the piñata in the storm") to be the most important visual. This visual is the "money shot" that confirms the danger posed by the storm, the live-ness of the coverage ("breaking news"), and the mastery of the television news apparatus to bring this managed danger to audiences. In turn, through this address, television news brings viewers into the status of "weather citizens," constructing a sense of watching from a distance as an obligation and a simulation of connection (Fleetwood, 2006; Sturken, 2001). The anchor must be shielded from the storm to guarantee the ability to broadcast: in the 24-hour news cycle of cable television, continuity of broadcast is paramount.
Until landfall, the television audience also included New Orleans residents, and some of the television news coverage was directed to New Orleans audiences (warnings to evacuate and to prepare). Pre-landfall coverage could not project as freely onto New Orleans as would later coverage because New Orleans residents were watching and could complain. As soon as Katrina hit landfall, and the Gulf Coast lost power, television news no longer addressed an audience that was directly affected. Instead, television news addressed a "weather disaster nation" hyped-up to learn about the impact of the storm, but distanced from impact and implication.
"Weather citizens" enjoy the pleasurable apprehension of disaster from a mediated distance, able to view but not to feel the storm's impact (Sturken, 2001). Per Geoffrey Hartman's argument about television separating viewers into those who suffer and those who watch suffering, weather news viewers feel sympathy for New Orleanians, but not connection with them (1994, 2000). This logic depends on differentiation of "us" and "them" (with distinction in play as well: we would have left because we are sensible, and we are information junkies). A deeper, more political sense of empathy was not produced by television news because it emphasizes distance, difference, and disconnection. As long as television news crews had their own power generators, satellites, cameras, phones, food, and water, they were physically distinct from New Orleans even as they were reporting from it. The reporters and anchors were visually separated from survivors and used language to signify distinction ("can hardly believe this is America," "like a war zone," "refugees"). They controlled the televisual space, choosing whom to admit onto the screen, when to turn away and refocus, when to cut away. This distance, created by the apparatus of television news, further diminished the possibilities for connection and empathy, just as it diminished accuracy, completeness, insight, and perspective on those affected.
When New Orleanians lost power and were no longer part of the national television audience, coverage became further disconnected from the experience of residents and survivors on the ground. Coverage of the initial aftermath overemphasized tourists (standing in for national viewers) and reporters (standing in for actual residents). Reporters playing on TV's simulation of live-ness gained stature from location. Location lent immediacy and connection and a frisson of danger. But the self-imposed limitations on choice of location resulted in "coverage" rather than reporting: if it is not safe to send reporters, television news must hang out on dry land waiting for news to wash up out of the floodwaters.
What television produces as news is determined by logistics, finance, and past coverage. Television news is shaped to meet the perceived expectations of its audience. The early television news reporting on Katrina on all three networks was shaped by the location of news resources on the ground. By placing human (reporters, producers) and technological (satellite trucks, generators) resources in the French Quarter and the Central Business District (CBD), television news networks reported the impact of Katrina on these areas, with pre- and post-landfall stories about the state of the French Quarter featured on each network. Because the French Quarter and the lower CBD were among the few areas in the city not flooded by the multiple breaches in the levees, the television news networks initially did not see and did not report the actual story of the flooding of New Orleans (NBC's Martin Savidge, for example, reported on trees falling behind St. Louis Cathedral, sparing a statue of Jesus). Rather than send reporters out into the city, each network focused on immediate stories, extrapolating the consequences in one neighborhood in a way that proved terribly false: if the French Quarter had survived without flooding, so must the city. Of course, the French Quarter and CBD are the areas most familiar to tourists and thus to national viewing audiences, and these areas were familiar to television news from the broadcast of national sporting events staged at the Superdome in the CBD (including the National Football League's Super Bowl and the NCAA's Bowl Championship Series). For national television audiences, viewers addressed by the television news networks, the French Quarter was New Orleans. Visual overemphasis on this small part of the City of New Orleans contributed to the initial neglect by television news of representations of the much larger city, a neglect that had real impact on response.
The anchors and anchor/reporters on the ground benefitted from their location and live-ness to produce forms of pseudo-witness of the events of Katrina. In this regard, Brian Williams of NBC and Shepard Smith of Fox enjoyed an advantage over Aaron Brown of CNN. While Brown reported exclusively from CNN's New York studio, Williams regularly anchored from Louisiana (New Orleans, Metairie, and Baton Rouge during the first week), and Smith served as anchor-on-the-ground and "reporter." With a camera set up on the I-10 Expressway, showing the damaged Superdome and New Orleans's CBD in the background, Williams proposed his own experience of the storm and flood as a form of witness to the lived experience of Katrina. Usually wardrobed in a long-sleeved chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Williams visually conveyed the sense of anchor-as-disaster-zone correspondent, using signifiers of dress and comportment to gain credibility and connection. Like other Fox talent in the field, Smith wore polo shirts and ball caps emblazoned with Fox logos and designs, serving as another form of visual branding.
By reporting from New Orleans, Williams and Smith proposed themselves as witnesses of the destruction and lived impact of the city. Each personalized his discourse with references to what he had seen and experienced. Of course, Williams and Smith were not true witnesses to Katrina since they were present under very specific and controlled circumstances. As Miles O'Brien noted in an interview, the news networks sent considerable resources into the field, including generators, food, and water to ensure that their talent and crews had power and sustenance. Whereas New Orleanians left stranded at the Superdome or Convention Center had no food or shelter, television news crews retired to hotels, ate hot meals, and used indoor plumbing. The anchors and reporters sought, via dress and reference, to associate themselves with the experience of survivors. However, the result was not true witness, but a professional facsimile. This process of replacement prevented real witness and permitted considerable construction of reality via visual storytelling and rhetoric and reporting of rumor. This process ultimately shaped national understanding, with significant consequences for a national, collective memory. The collective memory of Katrina defined by television news enshrined projections, misunderstandings, and mistakes as the dominant national baseline of understanding for what Katrina was and what Katrina meant.
Witnesses to the Not-Yet-Visible
CNN was the first network to venture out from the safe, dry, familiar spaces to report on the actual conditions in the larger city. CNN producer and New Orleans native Kim Bondy had learned by phone from her mother and stepfather that her Gentilly neighborhood had begun to flood hours after Katrina's landfall (Bondy interview). Her awareness of rapidly rising floodwaters in parts of the city unseen from the French Quarter influenced CNN's coverage. CNN was the first network to stop reporting that New Orleans had been spared by Katrina's eastward "jog" and the first to seek more information about other areas of the city.
On Monday, August 29, 2005, CNN reporter Jeanne Meserve and cameraman Mark Biello left the CBD to seek information about possible flooding. First by car, and later by boat, they headed east into the Ninth Ward. Tellingly, the farther they moved from the centralized resources mobilized by CNN, the more they learned about the extent of flooding and the threat to the tens of thousands of residents trapped in their homes by rising floodwaters. Conversely, the closer they got to the story, the farther away they moved from technological resources. Meserve and Biello learned important details about the flooding of New Orleans on the day of landfall, but they were not able to supply a video report that Monday. Instead, they provided separate interviews to Aaron Brown via phone. These were played over images collected by other CNN colleagues or purchased from freelance videographers. The images shot by Biello were not available for broadcast until the Tuesday (August 30) broadcast of NewsNight, as Biello initially lacked access to a power source, necessary to transfer and send his images. Due to the limitations of news creation in the aftermath of a hurricane, CNN's reporting of Meserve and Biello's discoveries emphasized the power and importance of discourse, but also underscored the importance of images.
Lacking the typical stand-up shot of Meserve delivering her summary report to Brown, CNN instead put up a screen with still images and graphics under her voice-over report. Throughout coverage of Katrina, CNN typically featured a denser frame than either NBC or Fox. Under Meserve's report and interview, the CNN frame included a still file image of Meserve in the lower left corner. Below this still, but above the news crawl across the bottom of the frame, was the text "CNN: On Telephone: Jeanne Meserve." A map of Louisiana and Mississippi, with New Orleans identified as the locus of Meserve's voice, occupied the center and right potions of the frame. Unable to visually connect Meserve to the ground of her reporting, CNN had to provide a weaker visual claim to her authority, employing text and graphics to identify and locate her voice. While less persuasive visually than a stand-up shot, the CNN frame also included a small box in the upper left, above Meserve's image, that asserted a crucial claim to authority: a globe inside a grid bearing the word "Live." The live-ness of Meserve's report mitigated technical limitations, even converting the lack of images into a gain in immediacy--this report provided such breaking news that it would not wait for images. After a handoff by Brown, Meserve summarized what she and Biello had seen: massive, extensive flooding of residential neighborhoods to the east of the French Quarter; rescue attempts by Coast Guard and local responders, but also the suspension of rescue efforts due to darkness; cries for help by multiple people trapped in their homes. Meserve's report was the first national television news broadcast that identified the extensiveness of flooding and the immediate peril faced by residents who had sheltered in their homes during the hurricane.
The lack of coverage kept viewers, including federal agencies that did not have communication on the ground, from understanding the dire situation until Tuesday. According to Jed Horne in Breach of Faith, small-scale search and rescue was suspended due to darkness and fears for the safety of responders working in the dark with exposed electrical wires and other hazards (2006). Since the extent of the threat to citizens had not been understood and reported by television news, and since communications on the ground were fragmented at best, the safety of responders was prioritized over the safety of residents. Thousands of New Orleanians faced death by drowning and exposure on Monday, August 29, 2005, in the hours after landfall and the breaching of the levees. Full resources for search and rescue were not employed until Friday, September 2, 2005, five days later, when tens of thousands of National Guard troops were finally deployed to New Orleans.
Recognizing the new information in Meserve's report, Brown interviewed her, attempting to draw out more detail in real time. The CNN reporting by Meserve and Biello was only partially scripted, departing from the television news tendency toward pre-production and editorial control. Significantly, Brown did not already know what Meserve and Biello would tell him. Usually, television news constructs a fiction of the anchor as all-knowing. Brown in particular created the impression of his control over the news broadcast by calling for changes in graphics, stopping reporters to ask questions, and at times demanding clarification. Brown's conversation with Meserve is notable because he was learning new information, much of it contradicting the network's previous reporting. For example, at the top of NewsNight, Brown declared: "Katrina, not quite the monster that everyone feared."
Importantly, Meserve's reporting focuses on the threat to New Orleans residents without judging them for staying in place. Fox and NBC took a different stance, blaming residents for "failing" to evacuate, suggesting that the survivors bore responsibility for their own jeopardy, and, as a result, had waived claims to social status, even to citizenship. The early use by Brian Williams and Shepard Smith of the term "refugees" to describe New Orleans residents performs the discursive act of stripping rights and standing from fellow citizens. In contrast, Meserve emphasized shared humanity and context for the decision to remain.
Meserve: The area where I was, was a very poor neighborhood. Homes appeared one story high, with attic spaces above. These are people, I would guess, who did not have cars, did not have the option of driving or money for hotels.
Just as the deployment of overall network resources determines the stories observed and told, the placement of the camera in relation to people and places, and camera movement, especially changes in focal length, determine what the images selected by news editors can say about the lived experience of people who survived Katrina and who attempted to survive the subsequent flooding. Images produced from long distance, even images employing optical zooms and other techniques to simulate closeness, maintain a sense of disconnection from what is shown. For example, the next image in the sequence under Meserve's voice-over report shows what appear to be four African American men in a medium-long shot, only to zoom out to reveal that the image was taken from the remove of an expressway. The videographic apparatus allows for the simulation of proximity and connection, belying the actual distance involved in the creation of the images. This is especially significant in the television news reporting on Katrina, as the distance is meaningful between a cameraperson shooting from a dry concrete overpass and subjects wading through floodwaters seeking safety. Response to the human disaster of the flooding of New Orleans was significantly impacted by the degree to which New Orleans residents were understood as American citizens, like the national viewers themselves. Television news coverage, in its production of images as well as in its scripting and delivery of language, produced opportunities for connection and disconnection with survivors in New Orleans that would influence local and national response in the days and weeks following landfall and would shape national memories of Katrina and its meanings in the years to follow.
Baghdad on the Bayou
With conditions growing increasingly desperate in New Orleans as the week progressed, the arrival of large-scale federal help delayed through poor planning and communication, the television news networks presented increasingly sensational claims about violence and crime in the city. All three networks projected fears onto people they could not see, making claims of shootings, rapes, and murders without presenting evidence or direct testimony. Instead, they sought to represent New Orleans as "slipping deeper into violence and despair" (studio anchor Laurie Dhue led off The Fox Report on September 1, 2005, with this assertion).
The television news networks sought to apply aspects of their successful coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to their coverage of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. In Ugly War, Pretty Package (2009), Deborah Jaramillo argues that television news coverage of the two Gulf Wars sought to attract viewers by producing war coverage as blockbuster entertainment. Through computer graphics, theme music, and especially through storytelling and visual rhetorics, television news emphasized American military superiority and the righteousness of America's cause (161). Jaramillo identifies the attempt to produce blockbuster, high-concept news as a new phenomenon, driven in part by the collapse of divisions between news and entertainment and by the economic imperative to sell advertising during television news. The news networks sold the Iraq War in this way for economic more than for ideological reasons.
Jaramillo argues that Katrina did not fit into news networks' high-concept approach for three reasons: incomplete understandings of the causes and impacts of the storm, confusion on the ground, and a lack of clarity regarding protagonists and antagonists (212). However, there is evidence that television news repeatedly tried to push their coverage toward high concept, first by emphasizing search and rescue, then by devaluing and demonizing the citizens who survived the storm and struggled to survive the flood. It was not until Friday, September 2, and Saturday, September 3, that television news succeeded in temporarily converting Katrina into high concept through representations of a massive and belated federal response via the arrival of thousands of National Guard troops. In order to present a triumphalist arrival by the U.S. military, television news had to first convert American citizens into enemy resistance. In the logic of television news coverage, New Orleans first had to be represented as "lost" to non-citizens before it could be successfully retaken. New Orleans had to be converted into "Baghdad on the Bayou" before its citizens could be liberated from themselves.
All this demonization and recuperation served to distract television viewers from raising questions of responsibility. While the television news networks would occasionally offer criticism of delays in official response, the visual rhetoric of the broadcasts did not hold government officials responsible for the failure of planning, the failure of the levees, the failure of rescue, and the failure of relief. Instead, television news focused on the miserable conditions on the ground as disqualifying New Orleans from belonging to the United States. As Christiane Amanpour stated in her Sunday, September 4 report with Anderson Cooper, she approached reporting on Katrina as if she were reporting from a foreign war zone.
On NBC, as early as Monday, August 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, Brian Williams began referring to American citizens who survived the storm as "refugees." Other anchors and reporters also adopted the descriptor "refugees" based on previous models of reporting wars and global crises. As Henry Giroux and others have argued, this discursive recasting of American citizens as refugees in their own country stripped them of sovereignty, of rights and standing, and of the respect television news normally accords dead Americans. The representation of bodies in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans involved visual constructions that prioritized some bodies over others. Reporters, responders, and officials were shown as having agency and cogency, while survivors were represented as victims, reduced, displaced, and weak.
In the effort by the television news networks to fit Katrina into high-concept schema, New Orleans residents were reduced in many of the same ways that Vietnamese, Iraqi, and Afghani men and women had been reduced before them. Unlike the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, Katrina was not easily, visually reduced into clear polarities of American virtue and power against others, figured as enemies and terrorists, in part because Katrina was understood initially as a natural disaster occurring on U.S. soil.
In each of the chapters that follow in the first section of Flood of Images, I analyze reports and stories broadcast by NBC, Fox, and CNN on each day of Katrina's first week, from the Sunday before landfall (August 28) until the following Sunday (September 4). In this way, I compare approaches by each network to similar news reporting. Moreover, by following the chronological development of television news coverage, I am able to argue for histories of production and for the progressive development of stories and themes over the course of the week. I begin with apprehension of the coming storm.
“This book is a brilliant accomplishment in every respect, and one that certainly deserves the widest possible audience. . . . It seems likely to become the standard history of Katrina as documented by the media, both as an event and as a shared national memory of disaster.”
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and author of Film and Television after 9/11 and Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema