At APME, Mayor Nagin Says Press Ignores the Positive, Post-Katrina

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By: Joe Strupp

Mayor Ray Nagin on Wednesday criticized ongoing press coverage of this city and efforts to rebuild since Hurricane Katrina, saying the media, local and national, was ignoring many of the positive events.

?At times, I would like to see more emphasis on a balanced approach, post-Katrina,? Nagin said during a panel discussion on the opening day of the Associated Press Managing Editors conference. ?We seem to spend lots of time on who is to blame. I see the role of the media being a little different because so many people are trying to restore their lives.?

Nagin’s comments came during a panel discussion that included Editor Jim Amoss of the Times-Picayune, Editor Stan Tiner of the Sun Herald in Biloxi. Miss., and Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway.

After the discussion, when asked specifically about the Times-Picayune?s coverage, Nagin told E&P that ?initially, they were really focused on the facts, then it got competitive,? the mayor said as he left. ?Pointing out what is not happening — they are struggling with a balance. But they are getting better.?

Nagin also cited a lack of reporting, overall by the media, of the way federal funding has been distributed. ?The enormous amount of federal dollars that have been spent and how little has gotten to the local level,? he told editors. ?I don?t think you have a clue what has been going on there.?

Nagin did stress that during the aftermath of the hurricane, the Times-Picayune was ?a tremendous source of information, news and entertainment.? He added that the paper played ?a very, very valuable role? when ?most citizens were starving for information.?

Holloway offered his own media critique, telling the dozens of editors gathered that the national media had missed the story in his city. ?New Orleans? story was sexier than Mississippi, it showed more on TV. New Orleans is a world class city, we don?t expect to get their attention,? he said, but added, ?With all of you here today, we expect to get more.?

Nagin said he also would welcome more press attention on his eastern neighbor, joking, ?I?ve got a couple of New York Times? reporters I can get you in touch with.?

Neither Amoss nor Tiner countered the mayors? critiques during the discussion, moderated by USA Today Editor Ken Paulson. Ironically, Nagin?s criticism followed a bit of praise from Amoss for the mayor?s efforts to initially evacuate New Orleans.

?Contrary to what I think has been an accepted part of American lore, the evacuation of New Orleans was possibly the most successful evacuation of a major American city,? Amoss told the audience. ?It was quite a feat. It is all in the myth that people did not leave this city because they could not. The vast majority of people stayed because they did not want to leave.?

Amoss said he even utilized much of Nagin?s initial calls for evacuations to convince his own family to escape prior to the storm.

Nagin said he did not regret waiting to call for the evacuation, explaining that he chose to increase the severity of the plea as time went on. ?I try to increase my rhetoric as the days go on,? he recalled. ?As I would have press conferences and talk to the public, I would elevate my sense of urgency. I got on TV and said, ?if you are not going to leave, make sure you have an ax?.?

Tiner offered his own praise of the local governmental leadership, citing the work done by Mississippi?s two U.S. senators, as well as Gov. Haley Barbour, calling his response a display ?of extraordinary leadership early on.? He also said that the paper sought to act as a unifying force in the initial storm aftermath. ?Our view was we could come back and assess blame later,? he said.

Tiner said recovery is still far from over. “While a lot of people may have said the most important, the biggest journalism, of our career occurred in the last year, I believe it’s in the year ahead and the year after that,” Tiner said.

When asked about how well anyone could have prepared for such a catastrophe, Amoss said surrounding himself with ?the very best people? helped. But he also took a shot at the federal government, noting ?we did not anticipate that flood walls built by the federal government in the 1990s would be toppled over.?

Amoss also predicted that it could be as long as seven years before ?the words Katrina or storm will not appear on our front page.? Nagin, meanwhile, declared that New Orleans would likely not see a full recovery for another five years, but added that ?in the next year or so, you will see New Orleans improve even more.?

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