Harry Shearer on New Orleans, media error, and not being the funnyman

Harry Shearer's new film uncovers what really happened in New Orleans.
Harry Shearer may be best known as the comedian who voices a litany of characters on The Simpsons and makes mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, but his new documentary is completely serious. The Big Uneasy, which screens tonight at the Denver FilmCenter at 7 p.m., tells the unsettling story of how the flooding in New Orleans was the result of man made design errors by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We caught up with Shearer about the Corps' lack of response to the film, why the media has virtually ignored this story, and his shift from comedy to documentary.

Westword: You've said in the past that you decided to make the film when you heard President Barack Obama refer to the flooding as a "natural disaster." Do you think the common perception of this has changed since he made that statement?

Harry Shearer: I think it has among people who've seen the movie or who've been stimulated in hearing about the movie to go read up on the matter. I'm not the NSA, I don't know what every American is thinking, but I know that the national media have been very resistant to reporting this story. And that includes not only the commercial media, but NPR. So I think people who depend on those media for their information may still believe that this was a natural disaster, in error.

WW: Why do you think the national media has shied away from this story?

HS: I did a little talk at the National Press Club in February where I sort of laid out my theory. I'd worked in journalism as a kid at, among other places, Newsweek, and I had experience with a story of no real consequence where the editor in New York had a concept of the story and wanted reporters around the country to give examples. I was reporting from Los Angeles and I said "well, there's almost none of that here, but here are the two people involved in it." And when story ran, in the intro in the paragraph about Los Angeles [the article said] that because it was Southern California it was ahead of every trend and it was ahead of this trend, too, and it was all over the place. And my reaction at the time was that the New York editor had gotten his concept of the story and those of us on the ground were basically just quote machines filling in the blanks of the story that he'd already gotten in his head.

Flash forward now many years and we have a big, big hurricane in the Gulf that everybody can see on weather maps and then the hurricane hits the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then New Orleans floods. The editors and producers in New York connect the dots in their heads and say that's the story, and that's what they cover. By the way, they did logistically some very difficult things in getting into the city when even the government apparently couldn't get into the city, so they then congratulated themselves on their coverage. And you know, the hardest thing to retract is a boast. But they left town too early. They left town before the real story started coming out.

I think it has a lot to do with ego. We did this story, we did it right, we did good. And to admit otherwise is I guess painful to them.

WW: Another group that seems to have problems admitting mistakes is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in the film you cite as the cause of the faulty engineering that led to the floods in New Orleans. Have you had any response from them about this film?

HS: No. What you've seen in the film is their response. They say, "We're not looking backwards, we're looking forwards." They don't even respond in public to the allegations of the whistle-blower who's been vindicated by the findings of another U.S. government agency. They plow ahead. They've got the money, they've got the power, they don't need to answer to people like me.

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