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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Coverup of the shame of New Orleans well underway

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 8th, 2005

Reuters’ Deborah Zabarenko reports (“FEMA accused of censorship“):

U.S. newspapers, television outlets and Web sites have featured pictures of shrouded corpses and makeshift graves in New Orleans.

But on Tuesday, FEMA refused to take reporters and photographers along on boats seeking victims in flooded areas, saying they would take up valuable space need in the recovery effort and asked them not to take pictures of the dead.

In an e-mail explaining the decision, a FEMA spokeswoman wrote: ‘The recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased by made by the media.’

What a load of baloney. Pictures could easily be ‘fuzzed’ to protect a dead person’s identity — assuming there’s anything recognizable about someone after floating for days in the stew of Lake George.

NBC’s anchorman Brian Williams provides another account of outright hostility by the police and military to the media doing its job :

While we were attempting to take pictures of the National Guard (a unit from Oklahoma) taking up positions outside a Brooks Brothers on the edge of the Quarter, the sergeant ordered us to the other side of the boulevard. The short version is: there won’t be any pictures of this particular group of Guard soldiers on our newscast tonight. Rules (or I suspect in this case an order on a whim) like those do not HELP the palpable feeling that this area is somehow separate from the United States.

At that same fire scene, a police officer from out of town raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media… obvious members of the media… armed only with notepads. Her actions (apparently because she thought reporters were encroaching on the scene) were over the top and she was told. There are automatic weapons and shotguns everywhere you look. It’s a stance that perhaps would have been appropriate during the open lawlessness that has long since ended on most of these streets. Someone else points out on television as I post this: the fact that the National Guard now bars entry (by journalists) to the very places where people last week were barred from LEAVING (The Convention Center and Superdome) is a kind of perverse and perfectly backward postscript to this awful chapter in American history.

On what authority is any of this happening? If there is a legal authority for this, it’s a stupid law that should be repealed. This is not America any more. We should write our representatives, senators, and president demanding that the press have full and unfettered access to New Orleans and every element of the rescue, relief, and recovery process — especially the body count and recovery process, and the growing number of stories of police and military mistreatment of survivors.* These were citizens of the United States, entitled to be treated with respect.

This catastrophe is being politicized and sanitized. Look for lots of “we may never know just how many died” as a talking point some time soon. If you just trust the government — especially this government — to tell you the truth while it’s hampering or intimidating the press, you’re a fool and a discredit to your country.

Maybe it’s time to try to start compiling an independent roster of the dead and missing for a New Orleans “Portraits of Grief” like the New York Times did for the 9/11 victims. It will be hard and maybe impossible, since many of the dead may have no family and few or no records of their lives left. Maybe the Times Picayune will do it — although I hope they won’t make us click past a popup ad for Dell Computers to see it four years from now.

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* The stories of Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky (via Making Light) and Pascal Riche will make your blood boil: soldiers at the Convention Center throwing glass bottles as hard as they could at a trapped, tightly packed crowd of survivors. Sheriffs firing over the heads of survivors at the Gretna city line (government contacts available here). Police using helicopter downdrafts to break up the resulting makeshift encampment up the road. Bradshaw and Slonsky concluded:

Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

UPDATE, 9/9: The New Orleans Times-Picayune missing persons database has 5519 entries right now. I wonder if operations research types might be able to estimate an equilibrium number of missing persons from the rates of cases added and resolved.
UPDATE, 9/9: Josh Marshall says CNN has filed a lawsuit against government agencies seeking to bar press coverage of victim retrieval process.

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