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Friday, September 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A view from the bridge

Washington (D.C.) CityPaper

Editor's note: Among The Seattle Times' news services, only The New York Times reported the incident below. That account, however, was for Saturday publication, and The Seattle Times is authorized to use New York Times content only for Sunday newspapers.

WASHINGTON — Soon after the floodwaters engulfed New Orleans, reporters chronicled the thousands trapped at the Superdome, trapped at the convention center, and trapped on rooftops. As the days passed, Americans elsewhere had to wonder: Why couldn't citizens just hike out of the city to the nearest patch of dry land?

The Socialist Worker webzine on Sept. 6 provided an answer: You couldn't leave without facing down a police barricade and gunfire.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, Socialist Worker contributors, had traveled to New Orleans to attend a convention for emergency-medical-services personnel. Then the storm hit. They holed up inside a French Quarter hotel for several days. Once the hotel's food and water ran out, Slonsky and Bradshaw were booted onto the street, along with other hotel guests.

The group set out for the convention center but decided to change plans after learning that it wasn't fit for humans. So they consulted a police commander posted near Harrah's Casino on Canal Street. "He told us he had a solution: We should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge," Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote. Buses would be stationed on the other side, the commander said.

They headed for the bridge, about 200 people, nearly all of them African American, according to Slonsky. As they approached the structure, Slonsky and Bradshaw reported, they were met with a police barricade and the sound of bullets whizzing overhead. Dozens began to peel away and scatter. Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote that they and a few others managed to approach the police line. They were told there were no buses.

"We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway," Slonsky and Bradshaw wrote. "They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: If you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans." Bradshaw reports that there were about a dozen cops guarding the bridge, and only one of them was black.

In covering Katrina, journalists expertly documented the stifling conditions at the Superdome, the convention-center fiasco, the weak levees that gave in to floodwaters. The coverage turned Michael Brown from an obscure political appointee at the Federal Emergency Management Agency into cannon fodder for Bush administration detractors nationwide. And it told the compelling stories of people who never made it out of the Crescent City. But it largely ignored the most compelling one, in large part because a pair of lefty Web types were first on the scene.

On the Sept. 4 "Nightline," ABC reporter John Donvan stumbled on the margins of the story during a sitdown with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. During the interview, Nagin brought up the barricade without prompting: "They started marching. At the parish line, the county line of Gretna, they were met with attack dogs and police officers with machine guns saying, 'You have to turn back.' "

The next day, "Nightline" reran parts of the Nagin interview and broadcast comments from a police official. But the segment lacked critical, eyewitness reports.

That's where Slonsky and Bradshaw had their scoop. On Sept. 6, socialistworker.org published its account. After the initial bridge clash, the two organized a makeshift camp at the foot of the bridge. They wrote of scavenging for food and water, making beds out of cardboard and turning a storm drain into a bathroom. Their encampment closed down when a cop showed up to wave his pistol and order them away.

"As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water," they wrote.

Socialist Worker Editor Alan Maass never had a doubt about the story's integrity — he had known the correspondents for years, and Slonsky and Bradshaw had long been contributors.

"There are so many amazing stories out there, and this is one of the most amazing out there," Maass says, noting that his daily traffic spiked from roughly 12,500 hits to 20,000 after the bridge piece. Via links and blogs and whatnot, the piece was bouncing all over the Internet.

But that was pretty much it. Almost in unison, newspaper editors across the country pooh-poohed the news value of cops firing toward black people on a bridge in the Deep South. In the days following its publication in the Socialist Worker, the drama clambered onto the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Houston Chronicle in addition to scoring a brief on UPI. The relative silence proved a maxim of print journalism: It's painful to credit other journalists, and it's really painful to credit a pair of part-time socialist journalists.

On Sept. 10, Gardiner Harris of The New York Times produced an account that drew in part from the Socialist Worker's scoop and in part from the author's enterprise. Harris confirms that the story's provenance prompted caution in the office. "We were all hesitant," he explains. "We all worry about things that bounce around the Internet. But because I heard this story directly from people in the region — I had been in Jefferson Parish; I had spoken to people who saw similar things — I wasn't quite as worried as my editors."

Jitters, however, kept The Times from elaborating on the racial dimension of the Socialist Worker story. "I thought it was very important, but we couldn't confirm it. It was an explosive enough allegation that we felt we couldn't go with it unless we had it pinned down," says Harris.

The Times didn't showcase the story — it landed on A13 of a Saturday edition. "I think the story was important enough that we don't have to be first all the time," says Harris. Slonsky says the Los Angeles Times almost made the same judgment but declined to run a piece at the time. The Los Angeles Times refused to comment.

The Wall Street Journal passed on the bridge story, too. "When we decide we want to go along, we go along. We kill a lot of stories each day because we're judicious about what we put in the paper," says a Journal editor.

And The Washington Post? "We're still looking at a lot of reporting targets," explains Liz Spayd, the Post's top national editor. "We're very focused on accountability both before Katrina landed and what happened afterward."

Says ABC's Donvan: "I was very surprised more people didn't go for it."

At some point, the Post and its competitors may have to interview Slonsky and Bradshaw. That's because the account is starting to make the rounds on cable TV, with CNN and MSNBC retelling the bridge encounter. The trickle of coverage could trigger an official inquiry of some sort. Until then, Slonsky will continue shaking her head about the mainstream media. "It feels like our story is just one of thousands upon thousands," she says. "We just wish the thousands had the space or energy to share that."

© 2005 Washington Free Weekly Inc. The Washington CityPaper's Web site is www.washingtoncitypaper.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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