When the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that it would stop paying for hurricane evacuees' hotel rooms (not to be confused with rent or housing arrangements for more permanent residents), the media frenetically reported on the displaced who were "wondering where they'll go." In four stories about the suspension of hotel rooms by FEMA, the three networks described in narrow brush strokes how those displaced families won't have much of a Christmas. Astonishingly, the j-word did not appear in any of those network broadcasts: jobs.
This situation brings to mind an old William Faulkner quote: "Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all." By focusing on the misfortunes of hurricane evacuees, the media have used up all of the "electricity." There is sparse coverage of plummeting gas prices, little to no news about the fact that economic growth has remained firm despite the tumultuous summer, and nary a word about the abundant job opportunities for displaced New Orleanians in "New South" economic powerhouses like Atlanta and Houston.
There are two clear options for hurricane evacuees still in hotels: return to New Orleans and begin the difficult endeavor of rebuilding more than just home, but an entire city, or undertake the equally daunting task of starting anew in an unfamiliar place. Both are steep challenges, but surmountable in a country of boundless opportunity and demonstrable charity. In an economic environment of dwindling gas prices, growing wealth, and an expanding job market, there is no wrong answer to the age-old question: "Should I stay or should I go?"
The first and most important step should be to find a job. In places like Atlanta and Birmingham, low-skilled workers have explored all sorts of opportunities through job fairs and recruiting seminars. Internet job banks have devoted entire Web pages to Katrina victims. Incidentally, should an evacuee want to return home and start anew in New Orleans, he would find a city starving for residents and laborers. A local Burger King franchise is offering a $6,000 bonus to employees who stay on for a year.
However, from the media's coverage one would get the impression that employment is not high on the list of priorities for recovery. A Bush administration initiative to repeal an old racist wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act, met shrill opposition from union groups and the media. Even though the repeal of the statute would have opened up the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort to low-skilled workers, an all-too-abundant demographic in New Orleans, the media chose union-endorsed talking points over more jobs for those willing to work.
Another component the media are failing to remember is the lesson of welfare reform, something that is especially relevant to this tragedy. That step, taken in 1996, proved that the best way to get the underclass off of welfare was to inform them that they only had a limited time before they were on their own. As a result, today's welfare rolls are half what they were in 1996. And countless former welfare dependents are gaining valuable work experience and a paycheck. No matter how heartening this trend might be for Katrina victims, it hasn't resonated much with the mainstream media. For the media, compassion is reliance on the charitable whims of government, not temporary support with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency.
In the most cynical context, the media are doing evacuees a terrible disservice by enabling them to lean idly on a government crutch. This manipulation is regretful, given that there are many reasons to be especially thankful this holiday season: the charity of good people, a healthy economy, abundant opportunity, and for many, simply surviving the storm. Because they are too busy dwelling on negativity, the media are missing the trappings of a true American success story. And ignoring a theme of overcoming adversity that has been recognized at many Thanksgivings past.
Charles Simpson is the research analyst for the Media Research Center's Business & Media Institute.