The SanityPrompt

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Are Socialists Born Liars?

Judging from the way the press treats them, you would think so. Some of you may have noticed that I referenced an account of some hurricane survivors of their ordeal trying to escape the hell hole of New Orleans. Central in that account was their being turned back at the county line by a row of heavily armed police with attack dogs who fired over their heads. But if you clicked the link you would have seen that the story first appeared in the Socialist Worker. Which supposedly explains why most people haven't heard this story and the press have been loath to pick it up.

Dept. of Media . Washington City Paper: A Bridge Too Far - The print media get picky about a story involving police forcing evacuees back into New Orleans. by Jason Cherkis and Erik Wemple

In covering Katrina, journalists expertly documented the seismic fuckups of officialdom—the stifling conditions at the Superdome, the convention-center fiasco, the weak levees that gave in to floodwaters. The coverage turned Michael Brown from an obscure political appointee at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into cannon fodder for Bush-administration detractors nationwide. And it told the compelling stories of people who never made it out of the Crescent City. But it largely ignored the most compelling one, in large part because a pair of lefty Web types were first on the scene.

On the Sept. 4 Nightline, ABC reporter John Donvan stumbled on the margins of the story during a sitdown with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. During the interview, Nagin brought up the barricade without prompting: “They started marching. At the parish line, the county line of Gretna, they were met with attack dogs and police officers with machine guns saying, “ ‘You have to turn back.’ ”

The next day, Nightline reran parts of the Nagin interview and broadcast comments from a blustering police official. But the segment lacked critical, eyewitness reports.

That’s where Slonsky and Bradshaw had their scoop. On Sept. 6, published their account, which chronicled the events and the dim light they cast on the barricading police forces. After the initial bridge clash, Slonsky and Bradshaw organized a makeshift camp at the foot of the bridge. They wrote of scavenging for food and water, making beds out of cardboard, and turning a storm drain into a bathroom. Their encampment closed down when a cop showed up to wave his pistol and order them away.

“As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water,” they wrote.

The Gretna story provided a fresh bit of content for Socialist Worker Editor Alan Maass, who recently published a dispatch on a July socialist convention in Chicago and a column on class warfare in ancient Rome. Maass never had a doubt about the story’s integrity, either—he had known the correspondents for years, and Slonsky and Bradshaw had long been contributors. “There are so many amazing stories out there, and this is one of the most amazing out there,” Maass says, noting that his daily traffic spiked from roughly 12,500 hits to 20,000 after the bridge piece. Via links and blogs and whatnot, the piece was bouncing all over the Internet, including an appearance on alt-porn site

But that was pretty much it. Almost in unison, newspaper editors across the country pooh-poohed the news value of cops’ firing toward black people on a bridge in the deep South. In the days following its publication in the Socialist Worker, the drama clambered onto the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle in addition to scoring a brief on UPI. The relative silence proved a maxim of print journalism: It’s painful to credit other journalists, and it’s really painful to credit a pair of part-time socialist journalists.

The New York Times, at least, had the smarts to realize that its readers weren’t surfing socialist chat rooms or grabbing their news from On Sept. 10, Gardiner Harris produced an account that drew in part from the Socialist Worker’s scoop and in part from the author’s enterprise. Harris confirms that the story’s provenance gave it a radioactive glow in the office. “We were all hesitant,” he explains. “We all worry about things that bounce around the Internet. But because I heard this story directly from people in the region—I had been in Jefferson Parish; I had spoken to people who saw similar things—I wasn’t quite as worried as my editors.”

Jitters, however, kept the Times from elaborating on the racial dimension of the Socialist Worker story. “I thought it was very important, but we couldn’t confirm it.…It was an explosive enough allegation that we felt we couldn’t go with it unless we had it pinned down,” says Harris.

Even though the Times didn’t showcase the story—it landed on A13 of a Saturday edition—the paper ultimately put service to the reader ahead of journalistic pride. “I think the story was important enough that we don’t have to be first all the time,” says Harris. Slonsky says the Los Angeles Times almost made the same judgment but declined to run a piece. The Los Angeles Times refused to comment.

The Wall Street Journal passed on the bridge story, too. “When we decide we want to go along, we go along. We kill a lot of stories each day because we’re judicious about what we put in the paper,” says a Journal editor.

And what’s the Washington Post’s excuse? Those legions of news consumers who rely solely on the Post have no idea what happened to this group of evacuees. “We’re still looking at a lot of reporting targets,” says Liz Spayd, the Post’s top national editor. “We’re very focused on accountability both before Katrina landed and what happened afterward.”

Says ABC’s Donvan, “I was very surprised more people didn’t go for it.”

At some point, the Post and its competitors may have to interview the heroes of Socialist Worker. That’s because the tale is starting to make the rounds on cable TV, with CNN and MSNBC finding time to retell the bridge encounter. The trickle of coverage could trigger an official inquiry of some sort, forcing the big boys to finally write the juiciest story to date of Hurricane Katrina.

Until then, Slonsky will continue shaking her head about the mainstream media. “It feels like our story is just one of thousands upon thousands,” she says. “We just wish the thousands had the space or energy to share that. We wish the media would call for the impeachment of George Bush and call for health care and housing for everyone.”


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