Katrina's Challenge for TV News: Find a New Narrative

I spent some time this week trying to figure out why I don't give a crap about the loads of Katrina anniversary coverage TV has been pushing at us.

I didn't put anything advancing it on my media blog. I didn't even talk about it while it was going on. Only as Anderson Cooper was wrapping up the last of his earnest live shots from the French Quarter on Wednesday night -- how many times is he going to talk about all the cool restaurants in town, I wonder? -- was I able to put keyboard to blog and figure this all out.

I didn't write about it, because I'm getting sick of it. Not the post-Katrina story, mind you; but TV news' tissue-thin treatment of the subject.

If you have watched any television news this week, you've seen it. An earnest anchor stands in front of a still-devastated neighborhood, glowering with indignation and pity. They note the garbage which still lines the streets -- Brian Williams picked up an old videotape he said he saw there last year -- the desperate people still waiting for relief checks, the rising murder rate, the rampant homeless problem and something new, for good measure. On one station, the new thing was gangs of criminals targeting the illegal immigrant contractors who have flooded into New Orleans to do reconstruction cheap; the criminals call them "walking ATMS" because they carry so much cash.

But it was mostly an empty rehash of TV news' glory days two years ago, when just getting the human misery in New Orleans before a TV camera was enough. TV audiences have seen the occasional reports; they know it's not getting better nearly as fast as it should. And TV journalists are on the verge of losing the nation's attention, because they keep telling us what we already know.

It's time to dig deep. Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams can't just fly into town for a few days and hope to penetrate this morass of local ineptitude and federal obliviousness. Newspapers, especially the local Times-Picayune, have done a fine job of dissecting exactly why things aren't working, and it's time for TV news to follow suit.

Who exactly is to blame for this sluggish recovery? Where did the money go? Why have more than half of Americans given up on the idea that New Orleans will ever fully recover? Is New Orleans even prepared to survive another hurricane if it comes knocking this year? Where is that national conversation on these issues we've been promised by every politician who ran for office in 2006?

On Wednesday, I watched Oprah Winfrey dissect the anniversary backed by her favorite news experts: Cooper, Lisa Ling and Dr. Oz. And while I'm not faulting these guys -- Dr. Oz, in particular, earned his stripes trying to treat those stuck in New Orleans in Katrina's early aftermath -- I kept wondering why Oprah wasn't talking to people who could really put a finger on what's going wrong. There's a small army of journalists who have been working this story non-stop for two years -- why aren't they facing Oprah's gigantic fan base and naming names?

(One local journalist who did appear on Winfrey's show, Pulitzer Prize finalist and Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose, wasn't even allowed to mention the name of his book -- a collection of Katrina-related columns titled 1 Dead In Attic -- on the show. He was tapped to talk about his struggle with depression.)

If she insists on featuring someone with showbiz credentials, just get Harry Shearer, who has been tearing the press a new one on Katrina-related issues since Day One on HuffPost. (Dateline NBC didn't even try, offering yet another true crime confection -- ah the drama of a good marriage gone murderous.)

My fear is that we've grown too used to the narrative we're stuck in now -- the poor, miserable Katrina victims, victimized again by a nameless bureaucracy and teflon politicians like Bush and Ray Nagin (CNN's Susan Roesgen scored one point, trying to get Nagin to look out his window and see homeless protesters camped right outside City Hall. Of course, that might have meant taking some personal responsibility for the city's failure, so the Big Man wasn't about to go there.)

It's time for TV to start kicking some butt on this story again. Look at how much got accomplished when it happened last time.