Tavis: Tonight, though, we start in New Orleans with Dave Walker, veteran reporter and columnist for the “New Orleans Times Picayune.” He’s been covering television and media for the paper for more than a decade now. Dave, always good to talk to you, and glad to have you on the program, sir.
Dave Walker: Likewise, Tavis, thanks.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, given what you do for the paper for all these years, what you make of all of the renewed focus – every network, every cable outlet, all the focus on New Orleans right now. That’s a good thing or a bad thing?
Walker: Well, I think it’s a combination of both. I actually spent the weekend compiling the master list, which can’t possibly be complete because it’s so long and there’s so much. I think everybody here is sort of bracing for what it is the coverage will be, and that’s because it’s so complicated, even five years after the storm. It’s complicated because of what’s happened even recently here.
I think people here are concerned that the story be told in all of its complexity and all of its fullness, but I also think people here want the duality of our situation to be told, the fact that much of the city that people know and love is intact and functioning and a great place to come visit.
At the same time, there’s parts of the community that are – some of my neighbors are still on their knees, and the coverage has to encompass all of that. Now, especially, it’s more important than ever, I think, at five years out.
Tavis: Is it possible, you think, to tell the story five years later, to use our phrase, in its complexity and its fullness, given that there is this tendency to go back to all the footage of what was five years ago? I think there is this tendency to talk about the politics of what happened or what didn’t happen five years ago.
Can the story, you think, in all these various recounts by the various networks and others, can it be told again in its complexity and fullness?
Walker: I think so, because I think there has been progress on a lot of fronts. I think that aspect of the story can be the lead for anyone coming here to do media reports from New Orleans.
One of the things that really troubles people here is when the inevitable b-roll footage, under whatever the story is, is flooded streets. That’s been a long time ago. We’re still living with the aftereffects of all that, the failed levees and the flood, but there’s been so much happening here since then, and so much of it is actually really positive.
You and I have talked about this before, but there’s a revolutionary change in the schools happening right now. I think that story is still far from being resolved. How it will turn out, we don’t know. I think in all aspects of society there are stories for these correspondents to pick off that highlight, I think, a lot of the positive work that’s gone on here.
Tavis: How have you stayed on top of your game? That is to say, how have you, Dave Walker, covered this story when you’re human too? You’re not human and divine, you’re just human, and so you’ve got a family, you’ve got neighbors. How does a reporter himself, herself, stay focused on the story when they’re trying to make it themselves?
Walker: Well, I knew the minute I saw the water five years ago that – and I’d said this to my wife at the time. I said, “This will be the last story I ever write.” She worked at the paper too, and she understood. Some aspect of Katrina and the floods is going to be in everything I write at the paper until I retire. It’s just the central organizing event in this city’s moment right now.
You just sort of resolve yourself to it. I’ll be really honest – I’ve been watching an awful lot of the stuff that will air this week and through the weekend. As you know, critics get advanced copies. Some of it’s very difficult to watch. The stuff that’s been most difficult for me personally to watch is anything that has footage from the immediate prelude to the storm. To me, it’s like scenes from a lost world.
One of the ways that I think a lot of people have gotten through this period is that you really try not to think about what life was like before the storm. The challenge was so great, the decades-long challenge of rebuilding the city, both for your children and your ancestors at the same time, you just partition that time of your life.
Flooded baby pictures are a problem no matter what the household income is, so you just sort of get over that and you block it off in your mind and focus on the task. That said, the task this week is incredible. There’s so much focus on New Orleans right now, and I think that’s good. I trust the people who’ve been here the most, and you and I could talk about the correspondents. I would include you and Jonathan in that group.
I trust that group to tell the story as best they can, and tell our story as it deserves to be told, so I’m pretty confident that what folks are going to see if they spend some time watching the television is, I’m hoping, a fairly accurate representation of where we stand.
Tavis: So much gets blamed on the media, a lot of it legitimate. Our media is not, I think, where it ought to be. One might argue it’s not even where it once was, but that’s another debate for another time.
Take me back five years ago and tell me whether or not you think the media did a pretty good job of telling the story so that the American people could be in touch with what was happening there. What I’m getting at here is we beat the media up for a lot of things, and again, some of it they deserve. But give me your assessment of how the media has done on this story, starting five years ago.
Walker: Well, I, at the last minute, left town before the storm made landfall so that I could be somewhere where there was electricity so I could watch that coverage, a decision my boss and I made at the last minute. Otherwise, I would have stayed through the worst of it.
I’m glad I got to see the coverage, because I think you can make the case that in many cases, the media, the reporters who were here were the true first responders. It was you and your colleagues who actually had to inform the government what was happening at the convention center, and there are lots of stories like that.
I think a lot of those people who were here in the worst had their retinas burned by what they saw, and have not let the story die. I think people here are a little conflicted about that. I think sometimes people think that the message of oh, poor New Orleans is damaging to the city and damaging to the recovery, but I think my worst fears early on was this would be a story that would go away.
I personally am grateful that a lot of the national media has not let it go away and has continued to look hard at the problems and the positives here, because we’ve got plenty, and it’s still a damn good story even though it’s not so great to live it. From the perspective of the people who are coming here, I get it.
I’m hoping that the mass of the coverage doesn’t result in a takeaway of people asking, “Why would anyone live there?” Because the problems that can be highlighted in that kind of coverage might lead you to that conclusion.
I’m hoping that the culture, the food, the music, the things that do drive the people who made the choice to come back and work through this, I hope those things are represented in a way that demonstrates to people that the thing that makes New Orleans great is still present.
Tavis: You know that question is going to be asked by some five years later – why would you go back? Why would you live there? The city is still a bowl, geometrically speaking. So what is the answer to that question five years later, why Dave Walker and his fellow residents still choose to live there?
Walker: I can answer just by mentioning a couple of things that I know about on my beat, and things I would recommend to your viewers, things that I think that answer that question. One, obviously, and we’ve talked about this, is HBO’s “Treme.” David Simon and Eric Overmyer, their piece celebrates the way that culture saved the city and the way that individuals are saving the culture at the same time.
That, I think, answers that question. I think as far as the living in the bowl question, Harry Scherer has got a piece that’s going to air in theaters on August 30th called “The Big Uneasy,” which is an examination of our levee issue, the wetlands issue, that I think proves that our problems are solvable and that there is a solution out there that could complete the protecting of the city.
Clearly, I don’t think I need to make the argument – the place that gave the world Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima and Harry Connick Jr., that place needs to be preserved and restored. There are aspects of the coverage that will get to that and will balance the stuff about our crime and our police and the fact that tens of thousands of us are still not back, all of which are legitimate stories.
But it’s the balance, I think, that I and other viewers here, and we’ll be watching all this as a form of surveillance. (Laughter) But we’re hoping that the coverage strikes that balance.
Tavis: For those who decided to come back, for those who have chosen to stay and to rebuild their lives and help rebuild their beloved Crescent City, there is, I sense, a price to pay for that, and what I mean to suggest is this. I’ve been to Memphis many, many times. I was just there not long ago, and you know where I’m going with this.
If you live in Memphis, it is my sense when I go to that city that that city still has a generation of people who still feel the weight and the burden of being the town in which Dr. King was assassinated. I still feel that. As sure as my name is Tavis Smiley, there’s a cloud over that city for a lot of residents that they were the place in which Dr. King was murdered.
I raise that to ask the obvious question – whether or not there is a psychic effect, a cloud, so to speak, that will forever hang over this city, even when it’s rebuilt, of what the government allowed to happen there, what government did not do to save residents, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You tell me.
Walker: I don’t think there’s any question. That’s the baggage that we all carry, and by “we,” I don’t mean New Orleanians, I mean Americans. It’s something that I don’t think a lot of people here will ever get over, and I understand that completely.
What happened here was a failure. Americans were failed. Not necessarily New Orleanians, but Americans. In some ways, I think that fuels the fight for the people who stayed and the people who never left and the people who’ve come back, because it just adds another element of challenge to what’s already overwhelming in some cases, but which the rewards are repeatedly proving worth it. To be in this city after the Super Bowl was glorious, so. (Laughter)
Tavis: I can imagine, and I know they hope to repeat that if they can in a few months from now.
Tavis: He is Dave Walker, a wonderful writer for the “New Orleans Times Picayune,” and before I say goodbye to Dave, don’t forget tomorrow night on this program we will share with you the story – two stories over the next two nights, Dr. Norman Francis and the story of putting Xavier University back online, and the story of the Zeitoun family. You do not want to miss the story of this family, the Zeitoun family, in New Orleans.
So for the next two nights, focusing on Katrina five years later. For now, Dave Walker, love you and I appreciate you coming on. Thanks for talking to me.
Walker: Thank you, Tavis.
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