AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   June/July 2009

Farewell to New Orleans   

A veteran New York Times correspondent reflects on covering the rebuilding of “an irreplaceable cultural treasure” as he starts a new beat in West Africa.

By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

As images of ruined neighborhoods and gut-wrenching stories of poverty emerged from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, journalists and citizens uttered a collective, "My gosh, look at what that storm did."

But Adam Nossiter, a veteran reporter who built his career around covering the South, knew the truth: Many of the city's intractable problems predated the storm.

Nossiter, who lived there for nearly 20 years, moved in April from his position as a New Orleans-based national correspondent for the New York Times to head the paper's West Africa bureau in Dakar, Senegal. With his old position still vacant, USA Today is the only national newspaper with a full-time reporter in the city.

New Orleans is "an irreplaceable cultural treasure," says Nossiter, who turns 49 on June 4. "There's no place like it in the U.S. in terms of its beauty and its contribution to American culture." The nation largely neglected the city's travails before the storm, but New Orleans deserves and needs "help from the rest of the country, because to a certain extent it has difficulty helping itself."

For almost a year after the storm, he covered the Crescent City as if he were a local reporter. His stories about crime and the city's ineffective government and weak economic foundations dug at New Orleans' underlying social tensions. Such probing wasn't always appreciated.

"I would hear from people all the time who would accuse me openly or insinuate that I wasn't helping in the reconstruction of New Orleans," Nossiter says. "But they didn't understand that my role was not to be a booster of New Orleans or promote its interest or sell its story."

That desire to get to the heart of a story is characteristic of the Times reporter, says Robert Travis Scott, chief of the capital bureau in Baton Rouge for New Orleans' Times-Picayune. Scott met Nossiter in 2003, while Nossiter was covering Louisiana politics for the Associated Press.

Nossiter's grasp of Southern history served him well, says close friend Larry Powell. His understanding of the story goes beyond today's headlines, says Powell, a Tulane University history professor. "He can see that longer view."

Put simply, the South showcases the best and worst of our national character, Nossiter says. Conflict compels people there to bridge racial differences, he believes, but also reinforces long-standing racial antagonism.

"The South has the heaviest historical baggage of any region of the country," he says. While this legacy of conflict and disagreement makes race "an ongoing good story," it is also a touchy subject to cover. "He tends to frame things a lot in a racial way," says New Orleans resident Karen Gadbois. Nossiter profiled Gadbois last August for her role in uncovering a nonprofit agency's misuse of federal funds meant for reconstruction. "[Race] becomes a player in the story but I'm not quite sure that it's always the player in the story that he makes it out to be."

Some in New Orleans accused him of racism for reporting in a February story that young African Americans were primarily responsible for violence against Hispanic laborers.

"That's not racism; it's what goes on," Nossiter says. "You are treading in very sensitive ground, particularly in a place like New Orleans."

Despite the "latent racial conflict" plaguing New Orleans, the city captivated Nossiter with its charm and human scale. The Garden District in particular, with its gnarled greenery and "incomparable architecture," exudes quiet. "It's just a very good place to sit and think and read and write," he says.

Nossiter, who declares himself inchoate unless writing, reveres the privilege of putting words together for a living. His keen attention to language stems from his admiration of what he calls the "holy trinity" of authors: Flaubert, Proust and Stendhal.

"The writers who have made a cult of finding the right words to express themselves are French," Nossiter says. An inveterate Francophile, he earned a degree in French history and literature from Harvard in 1982. He traces his love of France to the drama, conflict, evolution and revolution that characterize that country's history.

"He's not a dilettante. He's not someone who just dabbles about and tries to be a renaissance man," Scott says. "He is truly somebody who has a great understanding and affection for nice things and culture, great writing, great wine and great music."

Those greats offered him solace while covering Katrina. The words of Balzac and Chateaubriand, read by the flickering light of a candle, the melodies of Liszt and Debussy, absorbed through the silence and humidity of Southern summer nights, sustained Nossiter amidst a city drowning in "sadness and nonsense."

"Katrina was to a certain extent a succession of shocking scenes and images and situations," Nossiter says. "At the end of the day, to be able to take refuge in a world of order and sanity..that was revivifying."

Nossiter needed the nightly respite after days spent sorting through confusion, hunting for sources in an evacuated city and tending to a leg infection he contracted while wading through fetid water. Still, he says he felt lucky to be in the middle of an amazing story.

This passion for the craft of storytelling comes from Nossiter's admiration for his father. The late Bernard Nossiter was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post whose life melded self-education with the spread of knowledge, Nossiter says. His father's job gave him an international upbringing. Born in Washington D.C., he spent his childhood in Paris, New Delhi and London.

Nossiter's reporting career began at the Anniston Star in Alabama. He also worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before moving to the New York Times in 1992. He left journalism for a while before joining the Associated Press in 2003 and rejoined the Times in 2005.

Nossiter calls the Louisiana statehouse "a tremendous beat for any reporter." He adored covering the grassroots, ground-level drama of state politics. It offered an inside look at "the machinations, the colorful language that's used, the unguarded nature of semi-amateur politicians," he says.

On his new beat in Africa, tribal culture and ethnic conflict have replaced the rebuilding of a devastated, mythic city. Nossiter, who arrived in Dakar in April, will be joined this summer by his wife and two sons. Despite the adjustment, Nossiter has found the experience invigorating.

"The best part is the immense mental stimulation that one gets from being forced into a radically different environment," he says. Dakar sits at the edge of the desert, where chickens, goats and horse-drawn carts meander down dirt roads, and shanties are scattered among construction sites. Just outside his house, beggar boys looking no more than eight years old crowd the sidewalk, holding bowls to gather money.

Theirs is just one of the many compelling human stories Nossiter wants to tell in his new post. "Americans have a tendency to be inward-looking and not connected enough to the vast world that's beyond the ocean," he says. His challenge, he believes, lies in conveying different cultures, customs and ways of life, while still highlighting universal human connections.

New York Times Foreign Editor Susan Chira selected Nossiter for his new assignment, a choice Executive Editor Bill Keller supported. "Some people writing about Africa fall back on caricature and cliché, and others seem to fall captive to one political line or another," Keller, who was himself a highly regarded foreign correspondent, wrote in an e-mail interview. "I like that he's a thoughtful reporter — meaning he resists conventional wisdom. I like that he is empathetic without being a romantic or a bleeding heart."

Africa is a frontier, a continent in flux, Nossiter says. "Things are not settled. Society is not fixed, it's evolving. Government and institutions are evolving all the time. So you have a history that is sort of being created as you watch it."

With this constantly shifting landscape come the ingredients of a compelling story: conflict, confrontation, drama and an extraordinary cultural richness that isn't well known, Nossiter says. The newly minted foreign correspondent feels a "special responsibility" to make a U.S. audience "care about this world that's so unlike theirs."

Priya Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.