Bernie Cook Reflects on Katrina Media at the Ten-Year Mark in Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina
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from Film Quarterly Summer 2015, Volume 68, Number 4
When I met with Bernie Cook in his office on the Georgetown University campus—where he is Associate Dean in Georgetown College (the University’s College of Arts and Sciences) and Director of Film and Media Studies—he confirmed that his perspectives as a New Orleans insider informed his work on Katrina as a media scholar. Yet he also acknowledges that he left New Orleans in the mid-1980s: as much as he may be a New Orleans insider—with family still living in the city—he found himself in the position of being a Katrina outsider, relying on such emerging technologies as Google Earth and on mainstream media for news from home in the early days of the storm. It is evident that he has since studied media representations of Katrina inside out and backwards and forwards. There is not a single title related to Katrina that he does not know. His Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina is a rich and comprehensive text that should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand or teach Katrina media.
As Cook notes in his introduction, “Where y’at?” is a colloquial New Orleanian expression that functions as both a greeting and a question. He goes on to note that any scholar seeking to understand the production of Katrina media from its inception until now must ask that same question. Cook acknowledges that, in order to situate Katrina media scholarship in the larger historical narratives of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, one must situate the representations of Katrina within these same narratives.
To manage the massive amounts of media that were generated during Katrina and across the platforms that have followed, Cook wisely divides his book into three parts identified by genre: Television News, Documentary, and Fiction. Each part answers and raises questions about the forms of media generated in the aftermath of Katrina. Each section also addresses the multiple forms of memory work that continue to shape Katrina media production, reception, and scholarship today. Cook deftly weaves his understandings of the roles of autobiographical, collective, official, historical, prosthetic, repressed, and mediated memories into his scholarship of Katrina media. His readings of the independent documentary productions discussed in this book (among those discussed in great detail are A Village Called Versailles, Trouble the Water, and Land of Opportunity) stand out because he so deeply understands the political and social histories of the region and has retained such a sensitivity to local cultures.
It is not easy to gain critical distance from recent traumatic events, whether experienced firsthand or through multiple mediations. As I prepared to talk with Cook, I found myself immersed in my own memories of Katrina, my own vivid recollections of where I was and what I was doing when the storm first hit land in Mississippi on August 29, 2005. You may, too, dear reader. To remember, must one first forget? I asked myself this question as I read Flood of Images, and I asked Cook this question when we met.
It is evident that Cook empathizes with the individual and collective work of memory and mourning so integral to understanding the ongoing impact of Katrina on public memory. Flood of Images bears witness and calls attention to the manifold forms of testimony that continue to be created in the wake of Katrina.
PART ONE: TELEVISION NEWS
In your book, you discuss your rationale for limiting your analyses of TV news to “the big three” (NBC, FOX, and CNN). Can you explain a bit more about what is left out?
In designing my research approach, I sought to balance breadth and depth. I wanted to look closely at television news coverage of Katrina to better understand the ways in which TV news reporting constructed dominant narratives and established the ground for shared, public memory. Much scholarship on television news focuses on discourse analysis, employing scripts to talk about what was said. My interest was in analyzing visual rhetorics, to question the meaningfulness of what was shown.
Scholarship on television news coverage of Katrina has tended to cite broad impressions rather than analyze specific reporting. I felt it was important to look closely and deeply at a full week of television news reporting and to conduct close analysis of entire broadcasts, seeking to understand the interrelation between news stories and shifts in coverage throughout the week. In order to go deep, I had to limit the scope of networks under consideration. I chose to focus on NBC (major broadcast network with highest viewership), FOX (major cable news network), and CNN (major cable news network) as a broadly representative sample, and then looked closely at each nightly news broadcast (and national and local advertising). Since I was interested in understanding dominant narratives and broadly shared memories, I focused on the most-watched news networks.
I was also interested in how dominant television news was received by audiences. I write about the reception of a specific news story on FOX by an internet interest group consisting of firefighters and first responders from around the country. FOX reported that a group of St. Bernard firefighters were trapped inside a building by unidentified “snipers.” The report proved erroneous (actually, a group of firefighters in a different location got into an argument with power company security guards over access to water) and FOX dropped it without correction. Most interesting to me were the ways that online viewers shared and commented on the story. Board posters speculated about FOX censoring the “real” news. When the report disappeared, some saw this as evidence that the report was too real, not that FOX had reported an unsubstantiated rumor. Some understood the rumor to be a rupture confirming that New Orleans citizens were dangerous to the responders who were attempting to help them. Some members of the online community of responders called for the use of force against the unnamed, unidentified “snipers.”
The FOX report did not present any footage, since the event as reported did not happen. Instead, Shepard Smith related the story verbally to camera, and the text crawl repeated his assertions. Since the report lacked a visual referent, the assertion that New Orleanians were violent and dangerous floated freely. I argue that this type of reporting, and its reception online, contributed to the conditions that allowed authorities to approve violent force to be used against unarmed citizens.
Thus, while I do not focus on user-generated web reporting about Katrina—as Diane Negra notes in Old and New Media after Katrina, YouTube launched only six months before Katrina—I am interested in the relations between television news reporting and online evidence of reception and response.1
In the summer of the tenth anniversary of Katrina, the narratives that individuals recount regarding their experience of Katrina continue to evolve. What about the story told by NBC’s Brian Williams? Katrina is considered a definitional story for his career, occurring just a year after he took over at NBC for Brokaw. Can you comment on how the Williams news reinforces the notion of situated testimony that you develop in Flood of Images?
I found myself unsurprised by the recent revelations that Brian Williams has exaggerated his own role in newsgathering. Television news produces stories. In the book, I argue that television news is heavily pre-produced, applying schema to events, transforming the pro-filmic (pro-televisual) into coded stories. Williams chose to anchor the NBC Nightly News [during Katrina] from the field, unlike Aaron Brown of CNN who remained in the studio in New York. While Brown continued to wear a suit and tie throughout the week, Williams instead adopted a chambray shirt, with the sleeves pushed up. Visually, he sought to connect himself to the events on the ground, producing “authenticity” through manufactured proximity. In this way, Williams was closer to FOX’s Shepard Smith, who alternated between anchoring and reporting from the field, and who was often shown unshaven and wearing a FOX baseball cap. In both cases, the anchor/reporters performed as survivors, associating themselves with imperiled citizens, even as they retired to hotel rooms off air and enjoyed abundant food, water, security, and support. Thus, Williams’s exaggerations after Katrina in some ways continued and extended practices seen on air during the week after the storm and flood.
PART TWO: DOCUMENTARY
You draw distinctions between documentaries that have reached large audiences and those that have had more “local” reception. How does your idea of situated testimony shape the histories and memories that emerge through these different forms of storytelling?
In the book’s middle section, I was interested in recovering an archive of documentaries that engaged histories of Katrina and memories of the flooding of New Orleans. I propose this archive as a counter-history to the dominant understandings of Katrina generated by television news and its audiences. While television news influenced documentary film, especially as documentarians drew upon archival images from television news to supplement original shooting, documentary work involves significantly different relations to subjects and to audience. Both television news and documentary film make claims about representing truth. But television’s reliance on pre-produced narratives and its drive to simulate “live”-ness result in reporting that abstracts details from the real. Documentary also shapes and creates versions of the real, but the production practices of documentary involve different duration than television news.
I was interested in documentaries that spent time listening to and learning from New Orleanians about the experiences and meanings of the flood. I make some distinctions between commissioned documentaries with relatively large budgets like Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s When the Levees Broke (HBO 2006) and smaller, more independent documentaries like Faubourg Treme (2008) or Land of Opportunity (2006, 2011, ongoing). Land of Opportunity is especially interesting, because filmmaker Luisa Dantas has been working on documenting Katrina since 2006. Her overarching project has involved short documentaries created with community partners and distributed via YouTube [as well as] a feature film and a still-evolving transmedia platform. Whereas television news quickly “moved on” (by the first weekend after landfall, the death of Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist was the lead on all networks), Dantas and collaborators have sustained their attention to the flooding and recovery of New Orleans, not only deepening their understand over time, but also connecting the lessons of Katrina to other disasters like Hurricane Sandy or the failure of Detroit.
I particularly appreciate the way this section moves through a number of subgenres of documentary storytelling, especially in Chapter 15, “We Were Not on the Map.” Can you talk about the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East, and the problem of classifying individuals who experienced and suffered in Katrina as “refugees”?
Media can render people invisible, through neglect, misrepresentation, or the structured erasure of perspectives. But media, especially documentary media, can assist in providing voice and envisioning community. In A Village Called Versailles (2009), California-based filmmaker Leo Chiang worked closely with the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East to document the development of the group’s social and political consciousness after Katrina. Partially in response to the erasure of Versailles from the map of New Orleans, prior to Katrina, young Vietnamese Americans sought opportunities outside of the community, enacting a familiar economic diaspora. When the levees failed and Versailles was flooded with much of the rest of New Orleans East, community elders drew upon their histories and memories of having fled South Vietnam for America as refugees after the fall of Saigon to provide perspective on the current evacuation.
At the same time, youth leaders helped to keep the community together, as in the scenes crafted by Chiang from Neal Alexander’s footage at the New Orleans Convention Center. In contrast to television news reports of desperate and distraught citizens, Chiang shows the Versailles group at the Convention Center to be organized and collectivized, sharing food and providing support after the failure of the social compact. Much as Lolis Elie and Dawn Logsdon argue in Faubourg Treme that knowledge of Treme’s past may help save the community after Katrina, Chiang’s film proposes that the histories of immigration of the Vietnamese people to America helped them to save themselves from the flood and to emerge as a more unified community, especially around developing agency and self-determination to oppose the construction of a massive dump for Katrina debris next to their community.
PART THREE: FICTION
In Chapter 21, “The Continuance of Culture,” as your book is nearing its end, you continue to explore the ways that remembering and forgetting inform Katrina media. As you demonstrate, Treme is a benchmark series that enfolds the variety of media forms that you have analyzed throughout this study for their distinct approaches, using them to create a new social imaginary of Katrina. What do you think will come next in terms of Katrina fiction(s)?
As I argued in the book’s third section, the key value of fiction for understanding Katrina lies in the ways that fiction can activate empathy. As Jill Bennett argues, empathy involves recognition of the other but also recognition of distance between self and other, viewer and subject. Unlike sympathy, which functions by eliding difference in favor of a false and de-politicized sameness, empathy involves negotiation.
At its best, Katrina fiction has provided opportunities to approach, struggle with, connect to, and understand the experiences of human beings in New Orleans when the city flooded and after. I am thinking here of Zach Godshall’s wonderful, low-budget feature Low and Behold (2007). Employing neorealism in a sort of Katrina träumer filme, Godshall shot in the ruins of New Orleans, with his small cast interacting with actual residents, forcing viewers to work to understand the porous boundaries between fiction and documentary. Like New Orleans itself, Low and Behold exists in the intersection of the absurd and the deeply felt, the performed and the lived.
While I do not anticipate another (meta)text as sustained as Simon and Ovemyer’s Treme (at 36 hours, Treme will stand apart from other fiction for its scope and its truth claims), I do anticipate the continued use of fiction to explore, understand, and communicate about human experiences pre- and post-flood.
Will you continue to work on Katrina media now that the book is out?
I am interested in the possibilities of using media itself as a form of critical argument. As a next step in my own research, I hope to work with the images and sounds I analyzed in the book to explore how combinations and juxtapositions of images and sounds might reveal other understandings about how the histories and memories of Katrina have been and continue to be shaped.
I have also recently begun to get involved with cultural conservancy work in New Orleans. I am interested to continue to explore the implications of the continuance of culture in New Orleans, how performance and its representation contribute to the city’s social imaginary. I hope to do this using documentary as research method, listening, seeing, comparing, investigating, and seeking understanding.
As Brian Nobles says in Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water (2008), “Katrina keeps going on.” And so, the work continues as well.
Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina
University of Texas Press, 2015
$29.95 paper, $75.00 cloth, 388 pages