Looking back at Katrina a year later, NBC's Brian Williams decided to raise the issue of race and to showcase as his sole expert, on both Monday's NBC Nightly News and a prime time special, left-wing professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Williams, from New Orleans, set up his Nightly News segment by arguing the disaster “destroyed” a lot and “it exposed a lot, too, including, some say, the dicey issues of race and class in our country.” Dyson, a regular on Bill Maher's HBO show and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, declared: "The people in New Orleans were left behind long before the vicious winds and violent waters of Hurricane Katrina came along to wash them away."
Williams asked: "What was your reaction when Barbara Bush said they're really better off?" Dyson retorted: "Yeah, I'm a Christian minister man, so I always try to give love as the first response. But I'll tell you, when Barbara Bush said that, it reinforced the reputation of the Bushes as clueless patricians, number one. Number two, inadvertently, let's be honest, she was right at a certain level...” Williams followed up: "Were they robbed of their dignity by the government?" (Transcript follows)
Setting up another taped segment with Dyson which aired during an 8pm EDT prime time special hosted by Williams, Katrina: The Long Road Back, Williams re-played a clip of his December 12, 2005 session with President Bush, aboard Air Force One, for NBC Nightly News:
“After the tragedy, I heard someone ask rhetorically, ‘What if this had been Nantucket, Massachusetts, or Inner Harbor Baltimore or Chicago or Houston?’ Are you convinced the response would have been the same? Was there any social or class or race aspect to the response?”
Bush replied in the answer shown in December and again on Monday night:
“Somebody I heard -- you know, a couple of people you know said, ‘Bush didn't respond because of race, because he's a racist’ or alleged that. That is absolutely wrong. And I reject that. Frankly, that's the kind of thing that -- you can call me anything you want -- but do not call me a racist.”
For more on that interview, check my December 12 NewsBusters item, “Williams Hits President Bush with Charge of Racism Behind Slow Katrina Response.”
Now, a transcript of the August 28 NBC Nightly News story provided by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth, who corrected the closed-captioning against the video:
Brian Williams set up the pre-taped session: "Back here in New Orleans tonight, the water that came through this neighborhood a year ago destroyed a lot. It exposed a lot, too, including, some say, the dicey issues of race and class in our country. Why didn't certain people leave? Who did get out? Was any of this in any way intentional? Tough questions that we took to a man who teaches in the ivy league. Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote the book on Katrina and race."
Professor Michael Dyson, University of Pennsylvania: "The people in New Orleans were left behind long before the vicious winds and violent waters of Hurricane Katrina came along to wash them away."
Williams: "Two reasons, among the many reasons people didn't leave: government checks."
Williams: "That affects black folk, white folk. That's a poor folk question."
Dyson: "Sure, no doubt."
Williams: "That's a classism question."
Williams: "And transportation. Ditto."
Williams: "What was your reaction when Barbara Bush said they're really better off?"
Dyson: "Yeah, I'm a Christian minister man, so I always try to give love as the first response. But I'll tell you, when Barbara Bush said that, it reinforced the reputation of the Bushes as clueless patricians, number one. Number two, inadvertently, let's be honest, she was right at a certain level. Here's how she was right. That many of the people who were washed away were washed into better climates, better circumstances than they had before. That's a tragedy. You mean living in the Superdome or living in the Astrodome or living in a displaced geography that you had nothing to do with, you didn't grow up in, is better than where you were? For many people, yes. So even though she was right, she was right for the wrong reasons."
Williams: "Were they robbed of their dignity by the government?"
Dyson: "I think that what it reminded us is that the dignity was lost, the gracefulness of their eloquent embodiment as members of a New Orleans society that has given us so much jazz, gumbo, the way in which they walk, the beauty of the language, the lilt and cadence of their articulation. So when we lose New Orleans, we lose more than those poor black people. We lose ways of life, perspectives, jazz, gumbo, ya-ya, institutions of improvisation. That's what's lost. There is no question that the people who suffered there were failed by their government. I mean, one woman hollered I am an American, this is America. A black woman draped in a flag, I am an American. And it reminded us that so many of these people are not part of e pluribus unum, out of many one."
Williams: "It brought back a lot of emotions, but mostly those faces."
Dyson: "Well, the reality is that all poor black people have had in history is the right to tell the truth about their lives and to bear witness to the spirit that sustains them in the face of incredible odds. What those poor black people know when they go to church and bow down on their knees to pray to a God that they believe is there because if they don't believe, they'll do all heinous manners of acts, create havoc in their lives and others. So they must believe in God defensively to stop murder and suicide, to stop the hand that will slit their own throat. These people believe mightily in a God who delivers. These poor black people believed that God will be able to settle the matter."