Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cowardly presidential candidates?

About one week after the JRMC 8350 crew returned from our reporting trip to New Orleans, Times-Picayune reporter John Pope emailed to say that the committee charged with setting up president debates had rejected New Orleans as a site. Instead, they selected Oxford, Mississippi, which doesn't even have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the candidates, their entourages and the press corps.

Today an editorial in the New York Times took the debate committee to task, scoffing at the claim that "New Orleans did not measure up" as a debate site.

Those who've been to New Orleans recently find this implausible.

We were part of a convention with more than 20,000 physician participants and another 10,000 corporate reps and reporters. No one likes creature comforts more than doctors and drug company salespeople, and they looked pretty fat and happy.

New Orleans has worked hard to re-establish itself as a venue for major events, and for better or worse presidential debates draw smaller crowds than Mardi Gras parades or football games.

My guess is that candidates and their handlers are shunning New Orleans because they are too cowardly to face painful issues that a group of Grady students confronted in early November. Courage is needed to engage with people in ruined neighborhoods, contemplate the failures of political will and human decency that created this desolation, and resolve to do what we can to change this.

Surely anyone who aspires to the presidency should be willing to plead his or her case in New Orleans.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holding back the tears

For two days, my graduate students and I toured New Orleans most devastated neighborhoods by van, stopping to pick our way through rubble and talk to survivors and volunteers struggling to rebuild. It took eight hours to see only part of the flood zone, which in total is seven times as large as Manhattan.

JRMC8350 aims to teach graduate students the essential skills of health and medical journalism, but it also requires them to probe connections between health and wealth in every article they write. In New Orleans, this exercise felt like a dental pick touching a nerve.

The trick is not to cry if you're the professor, busy demonstrating reporter-like behavior for people who'll be your colleagues for years to come.

It was late morning on the first day when we stopped in the Lower 9th Ward, where literally thousands of working class homes -- many in the same African American families for generations -- had been shoved from their foundations and crushed when the levees broke. The rubble had been hauled off and the irrepressible growth of Joe Pye weed and goldenrod and tall grass had masked the pilings, foundation slabs and cement steps that remained. If you didn't want to think about the losses suffered here, you could convince yourself that these were vacant lots like any other.

One lot, however, demanded our attention. It was neatly mowed to the property lines and shurbs were pruned. Little imagination was needed to envision a barking dog behind the chain link fence that still stood, shushed by an owner sitting on the porch. Now there was no porch, no house. Just concrete steps and a child's whirligig, motionless.

This was a raw wound dressed by lawnmower and lopping shears. Someone lacked the resources to heal the wound and rebuild the house, but could not walk away. At least one student wept at this mute testimony to grief and persistence.

But not the professor, who had roles to model.

We wrapped up our tour the following afternoon, talking with New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters and editors who shared the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize for its storm coverage. Veteran medical and public health reporter John Pope, who arranged the visit, asked the grad students to talk about the first-person piece each planned to write. "What's your story about?" he asked.

We went around the table, and when it was time for writing coach Kimberly Davis to speak, she said "For me, the story is about the people who aren't here." And then it hit me: huge swatches of New Orleans are as silent as the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. In Holy Cross and Lakeview and other parts of New Orleans where buildings still stand, there are streets without voices, barking dogs, TV chatter, or the ringing of phones.

The realization made tears inch down my cheeks, there in the third floor conference room at the Times-Pic. But I did not cry.

Later that afternoon, I did. I encountered a scrawny black man in a Navy watch cap on steps leading into Jackson Square, and as I brushed past he said "Can you help me? I just got out of the hospital and I need to get my medicine." He waved in front of me what looked to be a completed prescription form, white and yellow copies torn off a pad and still gummed together.

For all I know, he was panhandling with the same line long before Katrina hit. Or he might have been freshly discharged from the hospital. It was impossible to tell. But I was prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt after all we'd seen, and so I gave him a bill that was probably larger than what he expected.

And I walked away, sat down on a bench, and bawled. We had all seen so much sadness in this proud and wounded city. And yet...and yet...we have seen people determined to stay on and endure, if not prevail.