Press making truth important again

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:43 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one fact emerges crystal clear: one’s financial situation can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. Poor people, especially those caught up in the complicated maze of the typical big city, can easily find themselves trapped in the web of poverty for their entire lives. It just somehow doesn’t filter through to the powers that be that for one person to survive on a minimum wage salary is an iffy proposition. It is virtually impossible for folks to support families on those kind of salaries, even with the help of government subsidies. When one can barely pay the bills that enable him or her and their family to eat, be sheltered and warm or cool enough to exist, there is nothing left over to even pay for a bus ticket to get out of town. And, of course, too much of the time, folks with plenty of money could care less. Elements of the tragedy we viewed on television during the past weeks are to a lesser degree the way many cities operate on a day-to-day basis.

In the days shortly after the hurricane struck land, some people expressed shock at the treatment of those who were left clinging to life without resources of any kind to assist them. Others were deeply saddened by the painful realization of how much money has come to matter in the richest country in the world.

In times of crises such as this one, the majority of Americans tend to open their hearts and their wallets to respond to those in need. And it is that first response that is crucial to sustain life and health.

After the crises pass, what Americans are not good at is monitoring the government agencies that they demand their leaders create and making sure these agencies are maintained and ready to operate efficiently when the time comes. I think one of the reasons for this is that too many people believe we are the same kind of people that have been immortalized in print and film for the deeds performed in earlier days of our history. Certainly we know, for example, that the patriotic spirit that prevailed among ordinary people during World War II suffered a major setback by the time the Vietnam War came along less than 20 years later. When people feel that the peace is threatened, many prefer not to remember the young men who fled the country during the late 1960s to avoid serving in the military. They like to believe that none of the members of the volunteer branches of service enlisted for any other reason than their willingness to lay down their lives for our freedom. When their fantasies are squelched, they feel hurt and wounded.

I think one of the more significant activities that emerged as a result of the hurricane is that it seemed to bring many members of the national press corps to their senses. The sights and sounds of people who had been abandoned and left to their own devises seem to trigger realization in some of them that, in spite of the government’s rhetoric, help was pretty much nonexistent for thousands of stranded citizens. This seemed to come as a surprise to much of the celebrity press. They are so embedded in political spin that they seem to take every word the national leaders speak as fact. To be fair, like the problem of what came first, the chicken or the egg, I’m not sure whether it is the viewing public’s influence on national journalists or vice versa. The thing is, our mental attitudes seem to have reverted back to the point where we are willing, without question, to believe anything we see or hear, and the politicians know it. When we find out that a political leader has lied, we react as if we are stunned.

I hope this unfortunate episode in our history will be remembered as the time that journalists once again became the people’s watchdog. This is not a Third World country; the status of millions of poor people struggling to survive below the poverty level ought to be a major issue on the agenda of every national political leader. It shouldn’t take a catastrophic natural disaster to inform anyone that too often, an individual American’s freedom is determined by the amount of money she can spend.

At this time when freedom is a major topic of discussion, journalists as well as politicians should reflect on that.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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