, the new documentary from actor/humorist/radio personality Harry Shearer (pictured), is about the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. But it's also about the failure of the public afterward to understand what had really happened -- that the disaster was the foreseeable (and foreseen) result of human negligence and stupidity, not a freak occurrence.
During a screening in downtown Manhattan Tuesday night, I asked Shearer how fine or poor a job the press did in investigating and telling the story.
Most of the Press Gets a 'D'
Shearer began by praising the work of Michael Grunwald, who covered Katrina's aftermath for the Washington Post and then Time magazine and who appears extensively in the film. Apart from that, he continued:
The Times did okay. I think the rest of the press gets a D, and probably a D-minus for their efforts at patting themselves on the back about how well they did speaking truth to power. Anderson Cooper ... giving a lecture to [Louisiana senator] Mary Landrieu, like that's the person you need to lecture. It was grandstanding and showboating in place of telling a story -- partly because they left. They left. Water leaves, story over. The [New Orleans] Times-Picayune won two Pulitzers for their work because they couldn't leave. They lived there. They had to stay.
Images of the Destitute, but No "Why?"
Shearer also offered a withering description of a "well-known anchor" who, when asked why he or she wasn't doing more to explain to viewers why the levees had failed, replied, "We just think the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience."
"So that's why you see lots of images of people destitute and unhappy but never get to find out why," Shearer says.
The Big Uneasy will have a one-night-only run in 150 theaters, screening on Monday, Aug. 30, on the fifth anniversary of the flooding. Asked about attempts to sell the movie to premium cable -- perhaps HBO, which often buys documentaries and has a new show, Treme, about post-Katrina life in New Orleans -- Shearer said, "HBO was supremely uninterested. They said, when we described it to them, 'Well, that's kind of National Geographic Channel, isn't it?'"
Correction, 8/26/10: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Mary Landrieu as a former governor of Louisiana.