Because of an error by Erik Wemple, the second item in “A Bridget Too Far” (Dept. of Media, 9/16) mistakenly reported that no staffer of the Washington Post‘s Style section had joined the New York Times since 1999. In fact, Los Angeles correspondent Sharon Waxman made this very switch. The mistake, in effect, vacates the premise of the item.
Soon after the floodwaters engulfed New Orleans, reporters chronicled the thousands trapped at the Superdome, trapped at the convention center, and trapped on rooftops. As the days passed, news consumers had to wonder: Why couldn’t citizens just hike out of the city to the nearest patch of dry land?
The Socialist Worker webzine on Sept. 6 provided an answer: You couldn’t leave without facing down a police barricade and gunfire.
Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, Socialist Worker contributors, had traveled to New Orleans to attend a convention for emergency-medical-services personnel. Then the storm hit. They holed up inside a French Quarter hotel for several days. Once the hotel’s food and water ran out, Slonsky and Bradshaw were booted onto the street, along with other hotel guests.
The group set out for the convention center but decided to change plans after learning that it wasn’t fit for humans. So they consulted a police commander posted near Harrah’s on Canal Street. “He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge…” Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote. Buses would be stationed on the other side, the commander said.
They headed for the bridge, about 200 people, nearly all of them African-American, according to Slonsky. As they approached the structure, Slonsky and Bradshaw reported, they were met with a police barricade and the sound of bullets whizzing overhead. Soon dozens and dozens from their crowd began to peel away and scatter. Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote that they and a few others managed to approach the police line. They were told there were no buses waiting for them.
“We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway,” Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote. “They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.” Bradshaw reports that there were about a dozen cops guarding the bridge, and only one of them was black.
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, socialistworker.org 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 suicidegirls.com.
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 sfgate.com. 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.”
One of the great feats in sports history belongs to the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 17-0, including a Super Bowl victory.
If the Post’s Style section stays on pace, someday staffers like Hank Stuever and Robin Givhan may be remembered as the paper’s Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris.
The playing field here is journalistic talent-poaching, as practiced by the Post and the Times. Although each paper routinely lures staffers from the other, Style has compiled an extraordinary streak. Since 1999, at least seven Style staffers have rejected recruiting advances at one point or another from the Times. New York Times 0, Style 7.
•Feature writer-essayist-turned-editor Stuever,
•Fashion editor Givhan,
•Political portraitist Mark Leibovich,
•Pop-culture writer and Borf chronicler Libby Copeland,
•Techno-feature writer Jose Antonio Vargas,
•Former music critic and current New York-based writer at-large David Segal,
•Television columnist and master satirist Lisa de Moraes.
Leibovich and Copeland only recently pulled off their goal-line stands against Times recruiters. They appear to be targets of a Times raid over the past year that’s had success in other sections of the Post: Just last week, the Post announced the defection of financial reporter Michael Barbaro, and young Metro staffers Sewell Chan and Manny Fernandez have also joined forces with the enemy.
It’s not hard to figure out why Metro staffers would hop on the next Acela to New York. They labor under a staid news formula and supply copy to the weekly Extra sections, which read a lot like the Dupont Current.
Style staffers stick around for inverse reasons. They’re allowed to bust through conventions that straitjacket their peers in other sections. “The Post has been really great in letting me define fashion in a really broad way,” says Givhan, who has written controversial stories on the appearances of such figures as Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
“I hope people stay because they like working here and they know they can do great work here,” says Deborah Heard, the top Style editor.
In their accounts of Times wooing sessions, Stylists paint a complimentary picture of the paper’s recruiters—smart folks who know your work and vow to let you exercise your writerly side at the Times. Yet the discussions can occasionally veer into condescension. Says Stuever: “They do come in with the ‘Shouldn’t your work be read by a national audience? Doesn’t your work deserve to be on the best possible [platform]?’…The thinly veiled interpretation is that no one reads the Washington Post.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by AP/Wide World.