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Media Bias of a Different Color: Race, Community, and Disaster Reporting
We all remember what happened after Hurricane Sandy, as looters and chaos ruled the streets. It was almost as bad as the days after Katrina, when the Superdome was a virtual house of horrors plagued by rapes and murders. Civilization breaks down after natural disasters, and our worst instincts emerge. At least that’s what happens when disaster strikes a major urban center.
Contrast that with the wonderful sense of community so evident yesterday in the wreckage of Moore, Oklahoma.
MSNBC’s Martin Bashir summarized the comments of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who described the good people of Oklahoma coming together in times of tragedy. Milissa Rehberger, who worked in Oklahoma City during the horrific 1999 tornado, agreed.
Watch here, starting at 2m20s and ending at 3m14s:
It’s the whole state. Yes, they’re very strong, resilient people. We keep using the word resilient. It’s very, very true. These are salt of the earth, hardworking people who value family, God, and community. They’re a community already. They don’t need a tragedy to pull them together. They treat each other well in general. And in general, the state, you know, when I was living there they asked me where do I worship? Would you like to come? They enjoy getting to know people. It’s a very tight community. And I know that we say that in times of trouble, but this is true of Oklahoma, basically all the time. The governor was absolutely right.
In the earlier interview, unavailable at MSNBC, Gov. Keating emphasized that there was no looting after the Moore tornado, because these were “people of faith.” Maybe that’s why Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) could be so confident that disaster relief for his state would not be like the “slush fund” for Sandy.
But as it happens, most of the looting charges after Sandy were dismissed, and communities there did come together to help each other. Just as the rapes and murders in the Superdome after Katrina were myths spread by a gullible media eager for sensationalistic headlines.
The difference, of course, is race. Most of the New Orleanians huddling in the Superdome were black. So are many people in New York City, especially in the areas where looting dominated the news coverage. But Moore is an upscale, largely white suburb. Joplin, Missouri is an even whiter community, and the stories of neighbors helping each other after that disaster became a documentary movie. The stories of civil breakdown, including looting by Missouri National Guard troops and even a Joplin firefighter, didn’t make national headlines.
This is a consistent media pattern. If disaster strikes an urban community, reporters will look for, find, and report any hint of looting and disorder. And if a disaster strikes a mostly white small town or suburban community, reporters will look for, find, and report any story of neighbors coming together. Both kinds of stories are there to be told, after any disaster.
But part of white privilege is knowing your town will be portrayed in a positive light if disaster hits. So of course your town should get federal disaster relief, and of course that won’t turn into a slush fund. After all, you’re “salt of the earth, hardworking people who value family, God, and community.”
Yes, the people of Moore and other stricken communities should get relief, quickly and without the zero-sum, beggar-thy-neighbor demands for cuts to other spending that Republicans demanded after Sandy. They should get that help because they’re hurting. And they should get that help because when We the People come together to care for communities in need, we express the very best of who we – all of us – can be.
I’m sure the people of Moore and Joplin are indeed “salt of the earth.” So are the people of New Orleans, and New York City … unless Salt Of The Earth should be on a Sherwin Williams color chart, somewhere between Dollop Of Cream and Tawny Tan.