Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Seeking Chris Matthew's cab driver

The nationally televised mayoral debate Tuesday night again was as much about Hardball host Chris Matthews as it was about the candidates. While Mattews ended the night on a high note, suggesting Americans wanted to see New Orleans rebuilt, his signature controntational style sent a mixed message.

He again asked the candidates to explain to an imaginary cab driver why his tax dollars should go to rebuild houses below seas level, unfortunately reenforcing the myth that the entire city lies as much as ten feet below the surround waters.

They're going to think it's crazy," Matthews said at one point, referring to citizens outside New Orleans and their view of using federal tax money to reconstruct a city below sea level, the Times-Picayune reports. "Nobody out there thinks the problems are with the levees," Matthews asserted [later], but rather with corrupt local officials.

Matthews represents a real problem: the perception not of that cab driver, but of the political and media elite. Matthew's ignorant suggestion that the levees aren't a federal responsibility or that the city lies far below sea level do us a greater disservice than Bay Buchanan's howling about Katrina fatigue. Folks like Matthews are about theatre, not journalism, and they don't let the facts get in the way of the show.

So, what does that cab driver really think?

A poster on LiveJournal New Orleans earlier this weeklamented here that polls shows a majority of Americans don't believe the city should be rebuilt. On closer examination, the truth is that in self-selecting, on-line polls this is true, but the news from a examination of formal polling data (based on random samples) presents a more encouraging if mixed picture.

The poll numbers show Americans have a more positive opinion than CNN commentator Bay Buchanan or NBC anchor Brian William's most vocal viewers. The available poll results taper off after February, but through that point in time a CBS news poll found that people know that We Are Not Ok, an important starting point for the discussion

"Which of these do you think is most likely? (1) Most of New Orleans will be rebuilt in the next year or two. (2) Most of New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will take longer than a year or two. (3) Most of New Orleans will probably not be rebuilt," 60 percent say longer than a year or two, and 27 percent say probably not be rebuilt. The fact that well over half recognize the it will take years for the city to recover indicates people know that We Are Not Ok.

An AP-Ipsos poll from the same time period found the same result. It asked: "Thinking about the areas in Louisiana and Mississippi hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina: To the best of your knowledge, are those areas now mostly recovered, or are they still badly damaged?" 87% responded still badly damaged. The same poll found that 46% of respondents agreed the government was spending "the right amount" on hurricane recovery, while 28% concured the government "should spend more."

We clearly have work ahead of us to convince people that the government is not spending enough to compensate New Orleanlians for their losses from the failure of the federal levees, and to give Louisiana the same share of revenue from oil leases on federal lands that inland states receive. That cab driver (and all his imaginary passengers) need to know we're only asking for the same deal that states like Alaska get, so we can put that money into reconstruction and coastal restoration and, if necessary, into protecting ourselves.

The really troubling number is that which indicates half of Americans think we should be left on our own in handling predictable disasters. Asked "There are many people in this country who choose to live in areas and homes that are known to be especially susceptible to destruction by natural disasters such as landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding. In general, when these disasters strike these areas, do you think the government should give money to local residents to help them recover, or do you think the residents of these areas should live there solely at their own risk?" 47% opted for help them recover and 49% chose live solely at their own risk.

There is still a glimmer of hope even in this number. While many New Orleanians rightly believe we are owed compensation, since the vast majority of uninsured damaged resulted from the predictable failure of the substandard U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levees, the clearest long term path to recovery is one of self-sufficiency. What Louisiana needs is to receive the same proportion of federal oil-and-gas lease revenue that states with on-shore production on federal lands get. This would provide the funds we need for levee construction and critical coastal restoration.

We only need to convince America that we can do it ourselves, if we're given the same deal that allows Alaska to send each of it citizens an anual check instead of collecting taxes. We could use that money to rebuild and protect ourselves. To convince them of that, they need to understand that saving New Orleans and all of coastal Louisiana is an essential investment, one that is necessary to keeping the port open and the oil-and-gas flowing for the nation''s economy.

The cab driver, it seems, isn't as negative as Chris Matthews would like to think, but we clearly have work to do to convince him of the worth of our needs, and the real culpability of the federal government in our disaster. And psudeo-journalist entertainers like Chris Matthews, who misinform the public for the sake of spectacle, aren't helping.

Ed. Note--I started this before watching tonight's debate and no I 'm not going to write about it, unless I develop a screed about how much bad journalism Rita Cosby managed in the first five minutes of her post debate show. Another day.

I didn't see the debate, but, from your account, it sounds like we're lucky nobody watches MSNSC.

By the way, your link to "Bay Buchanan howling about Katrina fatigue" takes me to some website that doesn't seem to have anything to do with Bay Buchanan or Katrina.
Thanks about the link. It has apparently aged out as a permalink, and takes you to the current Crooks and Liars sight. If you search there, you can find Bay Buchanan's screed about Katrina
By the way, I like your blog. Very informative and nice having the links to all of the other New Orleans blogs.
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