ABC on Race and Katrina: White Conspiracy Theorist vs. Black Conspiracy Theorists

Near the end of Tuesday's "World News with Charles Gibson," ABC's "A Closer Look" segment explored racial tensions in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Reporter Steve Osunsami recycled wild black conspiracy theories about how the levees were blown up in a racist plot, complete with Spike Lee soundbites and documentary footage. Whites were said to be delighted that Katrina would make the city much whiter. Lance Hill, the Tulane University professor ABC selected to describe white opinion, claims the government ordered no food and water be distributed to Katrina victims, and spurred local Holocaust-survivor outrage by comparing the government's Katrina response to Hitler's Holocaust. ABC didn't explain any of that.

Charles Gibson introduced the segment with a worried tone about the lightening hue of what Mayor Ray Nagin called Chocolate City:

"We are going to take A Closer Look tonight, at a sensitive issue here in New Orleans. How Hurricane Katrina has aggravated racial tensions in this city. The storm disproportionately affected poor and black neighborhoods. Before Katrina, two-thirds, 67 percent of New Orleans was black. Now, 40, maybe 50 percent of the population is black. In short, New Orleans is whiter and richer now. That has triggered suspicion in the black community. Here's ABC's Steve Osunsami."

Osunsami: "Shortly after Katrina, the city of New Orleans enjoyed a relative peace on its streets. But in a few short months, the drug dealers and drive-by shootings returned."

Unidentified black woman: "Police don't let it happen to you. Because it can happen to anybody anywhere."

Osunsami: "Across the city, there are many residents who say they know exactly who to blame."

To white woman: "Do many white folks in this town blame black folks for the crime?"

Joan Matthieu, New Orleans Resident: "I would think so. I would think so."

Then came ABC's wild-eyed leftist expert on white opinion: 

Lance Hill, Southern Institute for Education and Research: I think that race relations now are probably worse than they have been for years.

Osunsami: "Tulane professor Lance Hill said many white people here cheered when poor, black residents were evacuated. He believed some white residents saw it as a chance to rebuild New Orleans in their own image."

Hill:  People believed that Katrina was the best thing that happened to the city. Now, the sense among the people the uptown elite and the blue-blood elite, is that they're the victims."

Osunsami: "Victims, he said, because half of the African-Americans who once lived here are back. And dreams of a white New Orleans are dead. "

ABC left out a lot about Lance Hill's wild views on the Katrina response. In an August 22 op-ed on his web page, Hill explained:

My wife and I remained in New Orleans for more than a month during martial law, for the most part taking care of elderly people in the unflooded areas, and every law enforcement officer and soldier that we met told us the same thing: they had been ordered not to provide citizens with food, water, or medical aid.   

Hill pledged his allegiance to Spike Lee's conspiratorial vision, and insisted the United Nations should get involved:

Spike Lee has asked a question that deserves an answer.  The United States is a signatory to the Geneva Human Rights Treaty, which forbids governments from blocking humanitarian relief to refugees of political or natural disasters.  At a minimum, our nation’s own laws should forbid using food and water as weapon against our own people.  

ABC left out that local Holocaust survivor groups were outraged that Hill would propose an education program making a side-by-side comparison of the Katrina response with Hitler's Holocaust:

In response to this new reality, the Southern Institute is creating a "Katrina Oral History Program" for middle and high school students. The program will use oral histories of the Holocaust and Katrina for a comparative study that will increase students’ understanding of the causes of prejudice and the power of the individual to remedy injustice. Students will compare the experiences of the Holocaust and Katrina by using the same social and psychological theories that the Southern Institute currently uses to teach the Holocaust, i. e. categories of social behavior including Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, and Rescuers.

Instead of explaining Hill's background, Osunsami merely moved on:

"At the same time, African-Americans who returned are furious with the lack of affordable housing. And they blame their white neighbors."

Ladonne Hills, New Orleans resident: "The rent, the light bills, too high. That's why they try, I know they don't want blacks to come back."

Osunsami: "It's true the government has refused to fully reopen four city housing projects that were home to tens of thousands of black residents. But the co-chair of the region’s recovery efforts says black residents deserve better than the old warehouses for the poor.”

To Isaacson: "How will this be implemented?"  

Walter Isaacson, Vice Chairman, Louisiana Recovery Authority:  "I think one thing to do is try to make sure that all new housing developments are mixed income, mixed use, and so that all people can come home to it." (ABC viewers might not know that Isaacson is the former managing editor of Time magazine.)

Osunsami: "Among people who have already come home, there's a widening distrust."

Steva Pilato, [white] New Orleans resident: "Well, they’re saying that people are racist. It’s interesting. They're saying --"

Reporter: "Black folks are saying that the white folks are racist?"

Pilato: "And vice versa."

Then, fresh from the white professor's conspiracy theories, Osunsami turned to Spike Lee's black conspiracy theories:  

Osunsami: "In many black neighborhoods, they actually believe that white residents sent the barge that destroyed the levee and flooded their communities."

Unidentified black man, on film: “They had a bomb. They bombed that sucker.”

Osunsami:  "To this day, the conspiracy theories are so widely held, director Spike Lee put them on film. Several thousand black residents recently attended the new orleans premiere.

Spike Lee, director: "As an African-American in this country, I don’t put anything past the government.”

Osunsami concluded: "It will clearly take this city much longer than a year to heal. There's a sense here that as residents look back and try to figure out exactly what went wrong, this city becomes even more racially polarized."

But just as Brian Williams and Matt Lauer spread the conspiracy theories without really attempting to decide whether they were inaccurate -- and indeed, that falsehoods should be passed along if victimized groups believe them -- ABC should be asked if the truth matters, or they are merely transmitters of people's feelings instead of facts. Osunsami and ABC ought to provide more skepticism than saying blacks "actually" believe the levees were bombed. If they are going to broadcast the charge, they should also refute the charge if it is inaccurate. With segments like these ABC is doing nothing to alleviate racial tensions, but only to exacerbate them.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis