Start with opening shots of Bourbon Street. Frat boys with monstrous-sized "Cat in the Hat" headdresses, sticking their mugs in the camera and screaming "Woo-HOOOO!" and "YEAH!" at the top of their lungs, young women on balconies being egged on by the masses below to show them something. Blue-blooded krewe members throwing beads to the throngs along Canal Street. Then cut to Lower Ninth Ward residents sifting through what was once their homes, eyes moist, faces drawn.
We get it. The agony and the ecstasy of Mardi Gras, post-Katrina. Thanks for the nuance, guys.
If ever there has been a time that New Orleanians have lived with the notion that the rest of the nation -- the world, even -- doesn't quite "get" our city, it has been the past five months. In the national media, we have alternately been portrayed as noble savages, looters, murderers, rapists, yahoos, racists, mourners, beggars, sinners and saints. We don't have our priorities in order. We demand a government handout. We don't know what we're doing.
We have been down this road before. We have lived with a skewed perception of ourselves thanks to national and international media that, for the most part, don't understand the complexities of such a unique American city. And so we wind up having to defend ourselves to our friends, family members and strangers outside the city -- through letters, emails, phone calls and in chat rooms. Five months after Katrina, a frustrated city wonders if the rest of "them" will ever really get "us."
And now comes Mardi Gras, amidst accusations of favoring a "party mode" over a "recovery mode." Our emergency rooms are in a crisis. Our police force is staring down serious manpower and overtime challenges. Our people are still fighting to come home, and to get their lives back in order. Yet we have decided to hold Mardi Gras anyway, because we know all too well what it can do for us both financially and spiritually. In some ways, it was a very difficult decision. In other ways, it was a no-brainer. Canceling Mardi Gras would be like canceling Christmas. Worse, it would be admitting defeat. And now more than ever, this city needs a win.
Anticipating the inevitable stories about Mardi Gras after storm, we hope -- we demand -- that the national media treat post-Katrina Mardi Gras unlike any other Mardi Gras. Because it IS unlike any other Mardi Gras. It goes beyond the simple, aforementioned sound and visual bytes of reverie and tragedy. Covering Mardi Gras provides the media with the same opportunity that Katrina provides New Orleans: the opportunity for reinvention. There will be NOPD officers juggling parades with their regular duties. There will be doctors and nurses manning emergency rooms and rebuilding their homes. There will be Mardi Gras Indians struggling to maintain their culture. There will be re-routed parades, smaller krewes, curious visitors, hopeful investors, homeless parade-goers, evicted hotel dwellers, returning citizens, activist groups, awestruck relief workers and contractors, film crews of all stripes, moist-eyed historians, fundraising efforts ... the list goes on and on. Surely, we can all move past the obvious and tell the fascinating stories that will come from the most anticipated Carnival season in recent memory. Right?
In these five months, we have seen some sophisticated, in-depth coverage of New Orleans' struggle to rebuild. We have been continually impressed with the way such venerable and respected outlets as National Public Radio (NPR), The New York Times and The New Yorker have looked beneath the surface. Outfits such as these have provided a template for how to show complexity without being too dense for the viewer, listener or reader. For example, NPR will send All Things Considered anchors Michele Norris and Robert Siegel down for a week of special coverage Feb. 27-March 3. It's the latest way NPR has kept Katrina on the national radar with a wide range of reports. Several reporters and anchors have reported from here, and the network has created a compelling ongoing narrative with its series on evacuee Sharon White, having interviewed her for five segments. Norris and Siegel plan a sixth interview during their trip.
In the Jan. 9 issue of The New Yorker, Dan Baum wrote an insightful and comprehensive 11,000-word profile of the New Orleans Police Department's varied response to the storm. While some at NOPD may chaff at Baum's narrow choice of police divisions he scrutinized, the department cannot quibble with Baum's ability to capture the humanity of the officers.
And just last week, in advance of former Federal Emergency Management Agency executive director Michael Brown's revealing testimony before Congress, The New Yorker broke the news that the White House knew of the breaches in the federally constructed levees much sooner than previously believed. Along with an article on Brown's testimony, the Times also provided a helpful online sidebar with links to revealing government documents that shed still more light on the slow, inadequate federal response.
Clearly, these journalistic organizations take New Orleans seriously. We believe the rest of the national media owes it to the city, the nation and the world to take Mardi Gras just as seriously.