Archive - September, 2005

Covering Iraq

In the last two posts the role of
journalists and their trustworthiness have been discussed. In an interview on
Fresh Air today Dexter Filkins, the reporter for the New York Times covering
Iraq discussed how he worked in that dangerous environment. It’s an insightful
interview worth hearing as we think about journalism today.

In the last two posts the role of journalists and their trustworthiness have been discussed. In an interview on Fresh Air today Dexter Filkins, the reporter for the New York Times covering Iraq, discussed how he worked in that dangerous environment. It’s an insightful interview worth hearing as we think about journalism today.

Filkins described how he covered those who were drafting the Iraq constitution. He told interviewer Terri Gross that the constitution writers worked until midnight in the Green Zone, a fortified area not easily accessible. Filkins had to reach them in the early morning hours using Baghdad’s unreliable telephone system, or traveling to meet them, which was a violation of the curfew.

Given the violence of Baghdad in the daylight, one can only imagine the risk this involved under cover of darkness. Filkins lives outside the Green Zone so he travelled through dangerous streets that are the scene of car bombings, ambushes and banditry.

The interview isn’t about how he covers the war, it’s about his insights into the Iraqi situation, but it’s not possible to describe the situation without illustrating the challenges of covering stories there. It’s a risky, difficult posting.

Filkin’s comments reminded me of an article by James Glanz in the New York Times recently detailing the life of Fakhir Haider, a stringer slain as he pursued a story.

Even for him, a native, the danger of covering the war finally caught up with him. Filkins isn’t a journalist who drops in, stays a few days, writes a few stories and moves on. He has remained in Iraq for several months and is returning after a brief visit to the U.S.

War correspondence is an assignment unlike any other, but it illustrates what dedicated journalists do to get a story. Under the most adverse circumstances those who take on this kind of reporting demonstrate a commitment to storytelling that is courageous. Not every journalist is cut out to do this kind of work. But many work under adverse circumstances facing threats and other risks that are never included in their reporting.

It’s this kind of commitment that calls me back to a more balanced perspective when I get frustrated by reporting that doesn’t square with my own understanding. I’m willing to cut journalists some slack because I’ve seen people like Filkins and I’ve come to respect the commitment they bring to their work.

Media Coverage of Katrina

Catch me at the right time and I might agree with Roger’s comments in the previous post about trusting media in general. However, media behavior, and I’m referring here to news media journalists in particular, is more nuanced and complex than even I on my most cynical of days can explain simply. Media professionals weave their way through a complex thicket of competing claims and conflicting statements on matters of controversy and they must sort out and attempt to present them in a way that makes them digestible to those of us who don’t have all the background necessary to understand the subtleties inherent in any given story.

Beyond the face value information, a journalist has to be mindful of being used by sources with agendas, knowing that virtually everyone has an agenda. And they must get at information that some are determined to keep hidden.

Add to this dynamic the unique qualities of each medium that to a large extent influence how a story can be told in a compelling way, and consider that every medium is attempting to reach a particular target audience, and one begins to get a glimpse of the challenge journalists face in preparing a story. And I’m only scratching the surface here. I’m not providing excuses, nor trying to rationalize, just point out that covering a multifaceted, complex story is not a simple matter. That does not excuse the use of un-sourced material, undocumented reports or second-hand information. Contrary to Roger’s assertion that the quality of leadership at the state and local level has not been covered, I’ve seen stories in USA Today and heard television reports of criticism of the governor of Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans and the N.O. police supervisor, who has since resigned. Former FEMA chief Brown’s testimony before a Congressional committee was explicit in his criticism of local officials and received widespread coverage.

There are some good post-mortem articles appearing in the mainstream media about coverage of Katrina. The L.A. Times published this review recently. The N.Y. Times wrote that rumors fed fear of crime in New Orleans when the reality was much different and the article implicates media coverage as part of the problem. The Christian Science Monitor asked if the 24-hour news cycle was, in fact, serving us well or simply providing us with repetitious content. Slate is running several critiques under the heading “News You Can Lose,” which is one critic’s views of cable television news coverage. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post has critiqued the media on more than Katrina coverage, but certainly has not minced words about how the hurricane has been reported by some media professionals.

The Impulse Toward Helping and the Organizational Roadblocks

As the response to Katrina is reviewed, a
huge paradox appears. On the one hand individuals and small groups, such as
local churches, immediately sprang into action and reached out to those in
distress. But response by government was cumbersome, at best, and virtually
paralyzed at worst. What’s to account for this discrepancy?

As humanitarian response to the hurricanes is scrutinized a huge paradox appears. Individuals responded instinctively to save others at risk to their own lives. The U.S. Coast Guard also performed heroically rescuing people from rooftops in New Orleans within a matter of hours. But those government entities mandated to respond were cumbersome, at best, and virtually paralyzed at worst.

The paradox is that individuals and small organized groups, namely local churches, immediately sprang into action and reached out to those in distress. I talked to a number of people in both Louisiana and Mississippi who were helped by non-governmental responders, many of whom were neighbors and others who were complete strangers.

FEMA has taken it on the chin for not being present and doing what, on the face of it, seemed obvious to everyone. Help. What’s to account for this discrepancy?

Columnist David Brooks says this institutional failure results from incompetency at high levels. He says a succession of events in the wider culture ranging from corrupt corporate leaders to abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the total lack of postwar planning to the failure of intelligence to predict 9/11 or find weapons of mass destruction have shaken our confidence and contribute to low national morale.

I would put it more bluntly. Our institutions, especially our government, are failing us. They don’t reflect our highest aspirations or deepest yearnings.

When the best of our desires surface, we aspire to be a part of a group of people who make a difference in the world, a difference that makes life better. We yearn for connection with others in a community in which we feel accepted and affirmed. But we get a culture that emphasizes our fears and attempts to manipulate us into fulfilling individual needs while ignoring those of others. A culture of materialism requires emphasis on individualism. Community becomes secondary, at best. At worst, it gets left out altogether.

This changes the character of organizations as well. We get organizations that seem to be more concerned with self-perpetuation than serving the common good.
We get control freaks and self-aggrandizers in positions of leadership and we don’t get organizations that fulfill our highest aspirations.

It’s little wonder to me that in a time of crisis we saw both the most unselfish courage and a darker more ominous side of human behavior. It’s also little wonder that people are turning their backs to organizations that don’t listen to them and don’t appeal to their highest yearnings. The cynicism that is so pervasive today is fed by the turf battles that result from short-sighted leaders who don’t see beyond their own need to control. This fuels an anti-institutional attitude that weakens belief in all institutions. Skepticism about the organization is as strong toward religious denominations as it is toward government.

So the paradox between individual behavior and organizational response to the flooding in New Orleans, seen in this light, is not so puzzling. While officials battled over turf, people were drowning. The instinctively correct thing to do was attempt to save them. And that’s what many people took upon themselves to do.

Many institutions are drowning too. The flood in New Orleans didn’t help save them, it only highlighted how ineffectual they are when petty battles over turf and incompetent leadership get in the way of doing the right thing.

There is learning here that we need to consider and it goes far beyond the political positioning that places blame on the other side. This lesson is about character. It’s about what makes for good leadership. It’s about what we want our government and other institutions to be. We want to be led toward our highest ideals. We want leaders who listen and serve the good of all.

We want leadership that guides us toward our impluse to help. We don’t want organizations that act as roadblocks on that journey.

Rebuilding Democracy

People in the U.S. yearn for a re-birth of
democracy, according to Harry C. Boyte. He says re-building after a hurricane
is an opportunity o

…the response
to Katrina
also suggests
that Americans
are searching
for a rediscovery
of the democratic
— Harry C. Boyte

People in the U.S. yearn for a re-birth of democracy, according to Harry C. Boyte, writing in today’s Christian Science Monitor.

Boyte says governance is not limited to government. He points to the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago as a source of examples of community-led governance models. The IAF includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, racial and ethnic diversity and a wide range of political perspectives. Community participation through broad-based community involvement in policy-making enhances the creation of civic institutions, according to Boyte. He cites the creation of more effective public schools as illustration.

Boyte says “there is an urgent need for accountability and cooperative work to become core values in the civic culture.” Many in the religious and non-profit communities demonstrate transparency as they conduct their work everyday. They also routinely work across lines that divide. This expertise is a great asset not only for building physical infrastructure, but also for re-envisioning what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “blessed community.”

If these assets are recognized and allowed to influence re-building, a resurgence in the spirit of democracy could result. If not, we will face more of the same individualism, division and alienation we’ve seen so often in the current environment.

Rita Hennenberger on Overturning the Gospels

Rita Hennenberger, contributing editor to
Newsweek, offers a provocative commentary on how the culture leads us to view
poverty and working with the poor. She makes a sharp point–that we’ve
convinced ourselves it’s moral to <i>not</i> assist them and we’ve
even made the case to ourselves that’s it’s a tenet of Christian

When FEMA handed out $2,000 debit cards to a few affected storm evacuees in Houston the agency was immediately criticized for its largesse (among other reasons). One governor said the program should be halted because it was difficult to separate the freeloaders from those with legitimate needs.

Rita Hennenberger, contributing editor to Newsweek, offers a provocative commentary on how attitudes toward poverty and the poor are strangely counter to the teachings of the gospels which call us to love our neighbor and show special concern for the poor and vulnerable. Never the less, the gospels are being used to justify selfishness and to focus on individual sexual behaviors at the expense of our wider corporate responsibility for injustice.

Hennenberger says this shift represents an “overturning of the gospels.”

Economic Integration

Raleigh, North Carolina has experimented
with a form of integration in its public schools that is showing promise. It
highlights the value of integrating children from different economic levels.
This doesn’t impair those at the higher levels of accompishment, but it does
help those with lower test scores to raise their test scores.

An article reporting on a study in the Raleigh, North Carolina public schools in the New York Times this morning offers additional evidence that including children from different economic groups in the classroom helps those with the lowest scores and doesn’t harm those with higher scores.

Raleigh officials have made a concerted effort to economically integrate students, according to the article by Alan Finder.

Rebuilding The Community

Many are commenting on how to re-build New
Orleans. It’s a huge challenge and a remarkable opportunity. But experience
tells us that the issue won’t be physical reconstruction, it will be how we
re-construct communities. That will be the subject of maneuvering, debate and
public policy.

Many are commenting on how to re-build New Orleans. It’s a huge challenge and a remarkable opportunity. But experience tells us that the issue won’t be physical reconstruction, it will be how communities are re-constructed. That will be the subject of maneuvering, debate and public policy. But will it be inclusive and create even better, stronger communities than before the flood? That’s the question.

Writing in The Nation, Naomi Klein says, New Orleans could be reconstructed by and for the very people most victimized by the flood. Schools and hospitals that were falling apart before could finally have adequate resources; the rebuilding could create thousands of local jobs and provide massive skills training in decent paying industries. Rather than handing over the reconstruction to the same corrupt elite that failed the city so spectacularly, the effort could be led by groups like Douglass Community Coalition. Before the hurricane this remarkable assembly of parents, teachers, students and artists was trying to reconstruct the city from the ravages of poverty by transforming Frederick Douglass Senior High School into a model of community learning. They have already done the painstaking work of building consensus around education reform. Now that the funds are flowing, shouldn’t they have the tools to rebuild every ailing public school in the city?

Involving members of the community in the reconstruction of the community will provide insight and creativity that was obviously missing prior to the flood. Grassroots community development is the method used by international non-profit organizations such as Church World Service to reconstruct communities outside the United States not only when catastrophe strikes but also when the organization confronts the ongoing crisis of poverty. Grassroots empowerment results in amazing things.

I’ve seen villagers who can’t read or write band together to create development plans that empower whole communities. I recall a poignant conversation on the island of Madasgascar a few years ago when a senior leader dressed in a tattered purple T-shirt and well-worn trousers explained to the the benefits of having a road cut through the mountain pass that made it impossible for the village to get its garden products to a local market.

The road, he explained, made it possible for villagers to safely walk to the regional town where there was not only a market but also a health clinic and schools. he explained how isolation has kept the village poor and unhealthy.

But his most important point was that the children suffer. Lacking health care, education and running water, he said, they don’t have a good start in life. His goal was to build a school so that future generations would be better prepared for surviving in a changing world.

Later in the day, he walked me to a new building under construction and proudly showed me the new school about which he had dreamed.

What does this have to do with New Orleans? I suspect that the leaders who could help create a new, vital, inclusive and functional community already exist within the people of the city. But many of them are poor and have been shut out of the halls of power. They don’t have the ear of the mayor or governor and it’s more than clear they don’t have the ear of the national administration.

But their knowledge of the pitfalls of the failed educational and health systems, along with their experiences with city and state services provides an invaluable experience base and deep research about human needs in the city. Given the appropriate support and professional backup in city planning, and working in a truly participatory process with others concerned for the city, they can be trusted to rebuild a human community that will be far more inclusive and functional.

The leaders of the national administration have demonstrated their incapacity at community-building in Iraq. They compounded the perception of their incompetence with the evacuation of New Orleans. Trusting the people and empowering those with the greatest stake in rebuilding the city, those who lived there, is not such a wild-haired idea. In fact, it may be the most practical and sensible one that is being advanced today.

Lately, I’ve come to the belief that one of the most significant contributions the mainline communions can make to the current national dialogue is their commitment to inclusive, participatory community. The United Methodist Church, for example, started with small study groups that were methodical not only in their Bible study but also in their outreach to the poor. They were instructed by John Wesley, the denomination’s founder, how to go about this outreach and even how much to contribute to the needs of both the ill and the poor.

The expertise of urban ministers in central cities is an invaluable body of knowledge as well. I’m coming to the belief that the church is well positioned to participate in this process of community-building and, given its expertise in grassroots empowerment, may be better suited to leading the conversation than many political and civic leaders.

Spiritual Care After a Catastrophe

A catastrophe can result in a spiritual
crisis, or it can be a time of greater strength. Mary Geaudrea, the director of
spiritual care for the United Methodist Committee on Relief discusses her recent
experience in the Gulf states and also reflects on her longterm learnings from
other disasters.

A catastrophe can result in a spiritual crisis, or it can be a time of greater strength. Mary Gaudreau, the director of spiritual care for the United Methodist Committee on Relief discusses her recent experience in the Gulf states and also reflects on her longterm learnings from other disasters.

Mary says the church provides depth and security when events de-stabilize life. She told me that people whose lives are disrupted by catastrophe need safety and security first. These, she says, are offered by “excellent theology.”

She says clergy are the spiritual life support for their communities and they will be called upon to interpret events through spiritual understanding that reaches deeper than that commonly found in the wider culture. For example, she says it’s important for affected persons to be reminded of God’s love and presence, and not to be corrected when they express questionable theology as they face catastrophic events.

Mary says an important part of the interpretation of a disrupting event is the ability of UMCOR, which enters during an emergency but stays through long-term rehabilitation, to help people see long-term recovery from the start of an emergency.

An Interview with
Mary Gaudreau

Five Things to Do Before Rita Strikes

As Hurricane Rita approaches the Gulf states
there are five things those of not in harm’s way can do to be prepared to help
those who are. Here’s the list.

As Hurricane Rita approaches the Gulf states I asked The Rev. Thomas Hazelwood, executive secretary of the Disaster Network, United Methodist Committee on Relief, what those not in harm’s way can do to be prepared to assist those who are. Here’s the list.

Make a financial contribution to a relief organization. The reason most relief organizations request money at the start of disaster response is because they need to assess needs in order to provide appropriate material aid. As we saw in the Katrina disaster, a key issue was appropriate aid in the immediate aftermath. In addition to stockpiled material aid, agencies often need to purchase specific items and it’s more efficient to have cash available. But UMCOR will need cash for the long term when it’s not nearly so easy to get public attention and the media have moved on. Long term recovery and reconstruction are vital to success in community-building, and these stages cost money, too. So, it’s important to help UMCOR by underwriting the long-term response with finances when the emergency is getting attention.

Give appropriate material aid. Agencies will advise contributors what material aid is needed and request appropriate aid. Too often the second disaster is the arrival of tons of used clothing that overwhelm local distribution points. Given with the best of intent, this material aid is not as appropriate as particular items suited to cleanup and recovery such as personal hygiene kits or flood buckets with cleaning supplies. Each catastrophe requires particular material aid that is best determined by those on the ground. They will advise donors. UMCOR also has the ability to get these materials to affected persons in a timely manner.

Pray. Don’t minimize the importance of prayer as a communication that brings results. Prayer communicates our most personal and important concerns to God and it strengthens community in profound ways. Prayer is not only the deepest yearnings of the individual. It is also the fusion of the individual into a community bound by the common belief that God is present with us in unseen ways that both strengthen and transform us, even as we face difficult times. Prayer is unifying and healing. Don’t underestimate it, use it.

Volunteer. Through domestic disaster teams assembled by UMCOR and Volunteers in Mission, volunteer for cleanup and recovery. Later, when debris has been cleared and it’s time for reconstruction, volunteer for rebuilding work. UMCOR advises about the needs for particular skills and provides training for specialized needs. Volunteers are critical in major catastrophes and each has a role to play that fits into the comprehensive plan for recovery.

Encourage corporate gifts. Often, we overlook corporate gifts in disaster response and corporations sometimes make generous financial contributions. UMCOR benefits from corporate gifts but someone has to alert corporate decision-makers that this agency can not only receive their gifts but also will utilize them for the whole community. UMCOR provides assistance to everyone who needs it. It encourages community-based response and makes a particular effort to serve those who may be unnoticed or under-served by the government and other agencies.

As I write this Rita is approaching. The needs will be staggering if this hurricane continues to be as strong as it is presently. It’s good to know that these five options for making a difference are available, and that UMCOR is getting people in place to assist in this looming catastrophe. Rita will, no doubt, disrupt lives and take a toll on physical property.

Tom Hazelwood’s suggestions for responding to catastrophes can be heard in this audio clip.

An Interview With
The Rev. Thomas Hazlewood

Katrina and Stories

The stories of the evacuees and persons
affected by Katrina will continue to haunt us, even as debris is removed and
reconstruction begins. These stories will remain and the effect of the damage,
displacement and loss will also affect people into the future.

The stories of the evacuees and others affected by Hurricane Katrina continue to haunt me, not only those on television and radio, but those first person stories I heard during a recent visit I made to the affected area.

One young father told me matter-of-factly of not yet knowing where most of his extended family is located. This isn’t unique, of course. But what stuck in my mind was the harrowing tale he tells about how they got separated.

As the floodwaters crept higher in New Orleans they knew they had to flee their home and decided they would “swim” to safety. By this time the waters were chest high. As they made their way, one of the fathers in the group held an infant girl above his head. She was frightened, of course, but she became terrified when they came upon rats struggling to swim to safety themselves. It was then that he feared they might not make it, he said.

This fear became heightened when he realized the family had gotten separated. Some who had started together were no longer nearby, but there was no turning back, and he, along with his wife and two daughters, found safety at a highway overpass. In time, they did find high ground at a highway overpass and were able eventually to make their way to a shelter in Meridian, Mississippi.

A young mother told me of a harrowing escape that continues to cause me to flinch when I think of it. Her family left New Orleans prior to the storm. They numbered nearly 50 people in seven cars. They moved north but discovered the roads clogged. They turned west but roads in this direction were also at a standstill

As darkness approached they were tired, the wind was driving rain in horizontal sheets and it was nearly impossible to see the roadway in the torrent. They were sure they were trapped in the hurricane on a stretch of highway unknown to them. Death seemed imminent, she said.

Traveling in the darkness, blinded by the driving rain, a tree blew between the lead car and and the next in line. The lead car continued on, the driver unaware the caravan had been split by the huge tree.

As quickly as the uprooted tree came crashing down, however, the wind lifted it up and cleared it from their path. They worked their way forward, eventually re-connecting with the lead car.

But the wind lifted the tree and the remaining cars were able to continue and those family members in the lead car never knew the danger that had nearly trapped the rest of the family.

As they drove into the outskirts of Meridian, Mississippi they flagged down a vehicle to get information. Miraculously, even in these conditions, the woman driver stopped and told them to follow her, she would lead them to a safe place.

She led them to Central Avenue United Methodist Church which had set up a shelter for hurricane evacuees. As the young mother told this story she smiled and said they feel safe here.

“Now, this is home,” she said, sitting on a cot in a large auditorium in the church’s educational building.

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