FluxRostrum, a media activist who has been covering issues around the country from the Republican National Convention to the G8 to New Orleans had this to say about the media’s coverage, “They aren’t dealing with these issues. When they speak about serious issues it’s a one-shot thing. They gloss over it; three minutes later they’re onto the war or the next scandal. It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of devastation and corruption in a three minute clip.”
Jose Torres-Tama, a local artist and resident of the Bywater, said, “I was watching the NBC affiliate that had re-stationed themselves in Baton Rouge. They were reporting that the conditions were so difficult, that no one should seek shelter at the Superdome. There were some winds but not much. They were reporting 80 miles away, and even after Katrina hit, there was a report that the French quarter was totally flooded, had been totally destroyed. But I was there and it wasn’t true, and that’s the sort of bad reporting that went on.”
Grassroots media activists are working to change the paradigm around news coverage. With blogs, alternative radio, and art, they are able to provide a wider discourse on the day’s events. These new media activists are not constrained by the 24-hour news cycle. Because of this they can provide more in-depth coverage. However, some activists, like FluxRostrum encourage people to see the situation in New Orleans for themselves, “I guess to really grasp the massiveness of the whole thing, you’ve got to be there. Hundreds of miles along the coast have been completely destroyed. You can see a picture of an aerial shot, a lot of water and housetops, but until you drive for a day and don’t see anything that’s not, you know, destroyed at some level, you can’t understand.”
Marybeth Black, who has lived in New Orleans for twelve years, talked about the activist scene prior to Katrina, “This place needed a civil rights movement and needed support from outside and even the activists and journalists and schools didn’t have the infrastructure to keep up with America in so many ways. And now all this stuff was exposed to people who didn’t know even New Orleans, we were not on the map.”
Although New Orleans was off the map for many activists before the hurricane, there were artists and activists in New Orleans who understood the situation on the ground. Long thought of only in conjunction with Mardi Gras and jazz music, Jose Torres-Tama, an artist and activist who has lived in New Orleans for twenty-three years describes the reality before Katrina: “New Orleans exemplified the difficulties of most American cities are experiencing. Our social infrastructure was suffering from great polarities, including public school deterioration because of a system that didn’t serve the poor communities and communities of color particularly.”
Hurricane season ended last month, but New Orleans’ culture and history are at risk from new dangers. Landowners and developers have their eyes on the areas surrounding New Orleans’ French Quarter as well as the rest of New Orleans. FluxRostrum explained the situation with the French Quarter, “They want to make the French Quarter expanded into pretty much all of the downtown area, which would be insanely large for a place to go drinking. How big of a neighborhood do you need to go drinking in?”
Marybeth Black, who worked with grassroots media and pirate radio before Katrina, and now blogs and shoots video, suggested that New Orleans’ problems have been exacerbated by the disinterest of activists elsewhere, “In the elections of 2004 so many things went wrong here. People didn’t get their registration cards until after the elections, and I remember listening to these media groups and watchdogs on the radio. I called them to talk about these problems, but there was really a sense New Orleans wasn’t included in the activist agenda.”
Media Activists in New Orleans are still looking toward the future. As the attacks on residents continue, evictions and construction are happening despite a court order banning the bulldozing of homes in certain areas. Marybeth suggests, “The independent media can serve as a roundtable for the dialogue that needs to happen. It has a potential to serve as living history and connect people to each other. I get calls from displaced survivors trying to organize and need to know what’s going on here. The media can become interactive in facilitating some of these conversations.”
Grassroots media activists such as FluxRostrum see themselves as intrinsic to protecting the rights of New Orleans’ overlooked populace. “We can’t trust the corporate media to tell us the truth. They’re not going to say we’re evicting people that have no options, because they were destroyed by this natural disaster. The judge says don’t bulldoze and they start bulldozing anyway. If there aren’t people there armed with a camera and a lawyer with knowledge, it doesn’t matter what the judge says – stuff will be bulldozed. The longterm future of activist media in New Orleans will be prevention. Prevention of the land grab, protection of people’s rights who can’t be there.”
Mr. Torres-Tama said, “I like to consider myself and optimist and I’m hoping that all of this will lead to greater possibilities and more organizations to develop independent media and using the web to present these issues and tie us together. For everyone who has returned it’s a combination of ecstasy and infinite sadness. We’re living with Hiroshima in our backyard.”
Marybeth Black still holds a great hope for the future, and, like many of New Orleans’ new and old media activist community, she plans to continue organizing and looking toward the future. Perhaps exemplifying the constant life of New Orleans, she looks to the best that can be accomplished from even the direst circumstances. “It’s a training ground for 21st century activist media. You can do all this planning for 2 years organizing a pirate radio station but then a hurricane happens and everything changes. I don’t think anyone knows what will happen between now and next hurricane season. We have an opportunity to become skilled media activists with half a foot in the US, and half a foot in a disaster zone.”
Check out neworleans.indymedia.org for more.
Brian Conley is a 25 year-old journalist and filmmaker. He is the founder of the Alive in Baghdad Project. During his first trip to Iraq, the Alive in Baghdad Project focused on interviewing Iraqis living in and outside Baghdad. At this point Brian is working on writing articles about the ongoing situation in Iraq and arranging the project’s second phase. It is the goal of the Alive in Baghdad Project to make Westerners, and particularly Americans, more aware of the Iraqi experience and to begin to understand the occupation from the Iraqi perspective.