There has been a spate of stories about how our media have used Hurricane Katrina to suddenly return to their watchdog role toward government. This is being depicted as an extremely positive development. But many media performances, especially on cable news, constituted shameless grandstanding or Bush-bashing. In reference to some in the media, columnist Max Boot wrote a column under the title, “Katrina’s Windbags.”
One such windbag was NBC’s Meet the Press host Tim Russert, whose background as a Democratic Party operative came through in the desire on his September 4 program to blame the Bush administration alone for the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Director of Home-land Security Michael Chertoff appeared on the show only to be badgered by Russert about resigning and “accountability.” One has to wonder what the impact would be if Chertoff were to suddenly quit, in response to Russert’s demand. Then the media would have something else to complain about. They would charge that Chertoff had left the department short-handed at a time of crisis when he should be helping people.
In retrospect, although the President was forced by the media to label some aspects of the response “inadequate,” it was an extraordinary effort conducted in very difficult circumstances, in an area larger than the size of Great Britain, as criminals and gangs made it life-threatening to deliver supplies in a submerged city, New Orleans, where even some police officers were caught looting.
The question has to be asked: what other country could evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from a flooded city in such a short period of time when roads had been taken out and thugs were roaming the affected area, and then provide the victims with clothes, food and water, and medical care?
Despite calls for accountability, no heads rolled at NBC after the network put on a September 2 Hurricane relief program that itself turned into a disaster. The program, designed to raise money for victims, showed a rapper named Kanye West making the reckless and absurd charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The comments were edited out when the program aired on the West Coast and NBC dismissed the inflammatory and racially polarizing comments by saying that he didn’t follow the script and was giving viewers his “opinion.” The host of the show, Matt Lauer, did not condemn the remarks.
This was Bush-bashing carried to an extreme. As columnist Brooks A. Mick noted on the usually funny useless-knowledge.com site, there was an attempt by the media to assign fault to “evil white males,” led by President Bush and FEMA director Michael Brown, who were convenient culprits when there was a perceived need to avoid placing the blame where it belonged?on a black mayor, Ray Nagin, and a female governor, Kathleen Blanco, who wasted precious time before calling up the National Guard and asking for federal help. They “nearly drowned in their own incompetence,” noted Mick. Political correctness?and old-fashioned liberal media bias?molded the coverage.
A Florida-based columnist, Dr. Sidney Wallace, commented, “The national television and paper media are so full of prejudice against the President they cannot see the facts before them.”
It seemed clear that NBC and many other news organizations were playing partisan and racial politics with a national disaster. Senator Hillary Clinton saw the opening and immediately demanded a major investigation of the Bush administration’s handling of the matter. The major media didn’t mention that, during the Clinton administration, Raymond “Buddy” Young was hired from the Arkansas State Police to be a FEMA regional director in charge of Louisiana. One of his functions when Clinton was Arkansas Governor was to put down “bimbo eruptions” when evidence emerged of Clinton’s extramarital affairs.
If Russert and the rest of the media were determined to play the blame game, a better use of time would have been to ask local and state officials why dozens of city school buses weren’t used to evacuate both poor blacks and whites from the city. An AP photo showed the buses partly underwater after the levee broke.
Russert brought up the matter a week later, on his September 11 show, when he interviewed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. By then, however, the tone of the coverage had been set?it was Bush’s fault. (Nagin claimed he couldn’t find drivers for the buses but it was his duty, as the city’s hurricane disaster plan made clear, to evacuate the people.)
As for reporters on the ground, some of them were not only windbags but hotdogs. The coverage generated a rise in ratings for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, but it wasn’t the media’s finest hour.
Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News was correct to note the “histrionics” of Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera, who looked like they were performing in Saturday Night Live comedy sketches.
Smith practically yelled at his colleague, conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, when Hannity appealed for some “perspective” on what was happening in New Orleans. Smith had been ranting and raving about the poor living conditions of those who refused to evacuate the city.
Rivera held up a little black baby and declared on Fox News: “Look in the face of the baby. This is it. This is it. No sugar coating, no political spin, no Republicans or Democrats. People suffering.” The implication was that Bush should walk on water and do something about it.
But it turned out that Hannity was right?perspective was needed. Not only did the city not evacuate those people, it turned out that the Red Cross, which could have brought them assistance, was kept out of the city on orders from state officials.
American Red Cross President Marsha Evans confirmed that Louisiana’s State Homeland Security Department?not the federal government?refused to allow her organization into the city immediately after the storm because the presence of the Red Cross “would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.”
Rivera, who specialized in stories about his own role in saving people, got involved in a public battle with the New York Times when the paper reported that he had staged a photo opportunity for himself.
Alessandra Stanley of the Times reported that Rivera “nudged” an Air Force worker out of the way so he could be shown on camera helping a woman in a wheelchair. Rivera went on The O’Reilly Factor to dispute that. He aired a videotape that showed him assisting the woman in the wheelchair, while the Air Force worker was on the other side of the chair. There was no doubt that Rivera meant for himself to be on film, demonstrating how he could assist the victims when government personnel were said to be in short supply.
However, Stephen Elliott at Salon.com reported that Rivera arranged for a rescued woman to walk from the Fox News van to a heliport twice, so he could get filmed walking next to her with her dog in his arms. “That’s the second time he brought her here,” one of the doctors told Elliott, referring to Rivera. “They did two takes.”
The Left Likes Fox
Some on the left were impressed by all of this: “When Fox reporters are the most emphatically critical of the Bush administration, you know something is going on,” said liberal commentator Russ Baker.
It may have been nothing more than a few reporters deciding to make a name for themselves by becoming a major part of their own stories. Or it could have been as simple as cable news reporters who had been covering the alleged incompetence of Aruban author-ities in the Natalee Holloway case deciding to apply that template to Katrina.
Still, one far-left website expressed the hope that this kind of hysterical coverage would translate into an anti-administration attitude on Iraq. Indeed, it was becoming apparent that one element of an emerging anti-Bush media strategy was to blame the Katrina disaster on the President and argue that the alleged slow federal response was because too many resources are being spent on Iraq. This enables the media to bash Bush on two fronts.
The eagerness with which the media assumed their Bush-bashing pose in coverage of Hurricane Katrina was an ominous development. If journalists get away with political finger-pointing on the matter of a natural disaster, while exonerating state and local officials of any blame, they may think they can get away with further manipulation of public opinion and destroy the administration’s Iraq policy, leading to a U.S. withdrawal and a major terrorist victory.
Nevertheless, coverage of the aftermath of the hurricane was depicted as a welcome sea-change in media behavior. The headlines included: “Katrina rekindles adversarial media” (USA Today), “Reporters Confront Leaders on Government’s Response,” (Los Angeles Times), “Reporters Turn From Deference to Outrage” (New York Times), and “At Last, Reporters’ Feelings Rise to the Surface” (Washington Post).
Geoff Elliott of The Australian said that, “It appears Hurricane Katrina has been a cathartic experience for many news anchors and reporters in TV land, and it is TV that remains the most dominant shaper of opinions in the U.S. At the heart of it was this: the suffering these talking heads witnessed last week in the streets of New Orleans so dramatically juxtaposed the spin they were hearing from officials, from George W. Bush down, that they could barely suppress their anger.”
If this is truly what reporters at Fox News and other news organization took away from their on-the-scene reporting, then the media are in worse shape then we thought.
Clearly, the 24/7 coverage of the disaster by cable news created the impression that authorities were slow to react. Larry Grooms, a retired newspaper editor with 33 years of experience in local and regional dailies, said the media failed to process and convey the news about the hurricane and its aftermath with serious thought and rational reflection. “We are an impatient people,” he noted. “We demand fast food, instant email replies, short lines and immediate solutions to all problems. And we get news delivered so hot, fast and fresh that it could be as toxic to our nation as the tainted meat in an undercooked hamburger.”
The nature of the news business, especially cable news, created this sense of impatience. Bush was a convenient target and most people hadn’t heard of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin or Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. Nagin, who specialized in sensational pleas for help on national TV, played the media blame-game very effectively, diverting attention to higher levels of government.
Eventually, FEMA head Brown was reassigned, and later resigned, although it was still not clear what, if anything, he had done wrong. He charged that he had been scapegoated by the press?but not by the president.
One note of sanity during the crisis was provided by military analyst Dan Goure, who appeared on the MSNBC “Connected Coast to Coast” program “to discuss why it has taken so long to get help in to New Orleans,” as MSNBC put it.
“It seems so easy when we talk about it,” said anchor Lisa Daniels. “Is there some complexity that we’re missing here? Why isn’t this being done faster?”
Of course, Daniels had missed the complexities, like so many journalists passing judgment from afar. On Monday as the hurricane hit, nothing could move, Goure noted. On Tuesday, he said, “you had to clear the areas that you were going to deploy from, where you were going to bring in the helicopters, the trucks, the food and water before you just took it directly to the Superdome. You couldn’t dive bomb the place with food and water from on top. So that Tuesday [and] Wednesday, you start to bring in the equipment and the food and Thursday, you start to move into the city.” At best, Goure said, assistance may have been 24 hours behind optimum schedule, but that “they’re moving enormously quickly for a disaster that spanned 90,000 square miles.”
Asked about dropping food and other supplies to people, Goure said that, “…you have to get it to an area near the disaster zone and then bring it in by truck or helicopter. The commercial airfields, even the military airfields, were all covered with debris initially. You have to, in fact, put all your resources far enough away from the path of the hurricane that they wouldn’t become victims them-selves…it takes a while to bring in the trucks. You’re seeing military trucks. Those were not parked on the interstate on Monday night. They couldn’t have been. So, you’re bringing it in from a distance over bad roads, broken roads and the like. It simply takes more time then any of us would like.”
Daniels, who always wanted to focus on who was to blame, didn’t want to hear what Goure had to say, referring to it as a “different perspective.”
“It is remarkable that we have done so well in such a short period of time,” Goure continued. “Could [governments] have done better? Yeah, but let me tell you where the responsibility for the failure rests. Unfortunately, I hate to say this; it rests first with the government of the City of New Orleans and secondly with the government of the State of Louisiana that failed in their emergency plans. They knew about this problem. They had it in their emergency plans in 2000. In fact, the emergency plan on their website predicted a category 4 or 5 hurricane would cause 20-foot storm surges and would flood the city. They should have known this was going to happen. It was in their plans and they should have responded before the event and called in every federal resource they could get their hands on. They didn’t.”
Ignoring this view, MSNBC resorted to a cheap gimmick by running an on-screen clock that told viewers how long it had been since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The on-screen graphics showed how many days, hours, and minutes it had been since the hurricane hit.
Since MSNBC had served as a mouthpiece for New Orleans Mayor Nagin in trying to blame the federal government for not getting relief supplies in quickly enough, it was clear that the purpose of this ticking clock was to blame the Bush administration for an alleged slow response to the disaster.
But when Daniels demanded to know who to blame in the Katrina disaster during an interview with Mike Parker, former chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, he didn’t take the bait. Before he appeared on the program to be interviewed by Daniels, he was shown in a report by Andrea Mitchell saying that decisions to solidify and raise the levees and protect New Orleans from flooding had to have been taken decades ago. The report also showed disaster expert John Herald saying that local authorities had evacuation plans that “have not been completed.”
Parker told Daniels, “The fact of the matter is there is nothing that the President of the United States?this president of the United States?could have done to have prevented what happened in New Orleans.” His point was that this kind of infrastructure is decades in the making.
Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “had known for years that the mostly earthen levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain were designed to protect the city from a weak Category 3 hurricane?not a Category 4 with Katrina’s punch.”
The September 6 CBS 60 Minutes show featured Al Naomi of the Army Corps of Engineers saying that the flood walls were designed in 1965 to withstand a category 3 storm.
While some reports claimed that the Bush administration cut requests for funding from the Corps, that was irrelevant to the issue of whether something could have been in place to protect the city from Katrina.
The Criminal Element
While nitpicking the federal response and running that ticking time clock, MSNBC aired a Martin Savidge report that provided an important insight into why it was difficult to get into the city with relief supplies. He showed New Orleans police officers actually looting a Wal-Mart after the hurricane. Host Keith Olbermann, an anti-Bush liberal, tried to excuse it, saying that it could be explained by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s statement that if the looting was nonviolent, “they have other things to worry about?than people stealing stuff.” Savidge agreed that the looting was minor compared to the other problems facing the city. But he said it was still a shock to see police looting and he wondered what would happen to the city if the police were looting rather than attempting to keep order.
In a September 7 New York Daily News column, Michael Goodwin said, “Let’s take a break from the Bush bashing to reveal the dirty little secret of New Orleans: Its local government deserves an F for its planning and response to Katrina. And one other thing: The New Orleans police force would be a joke if it weren’t a disgrace.”
Incredibly, however, the Daily News had already run a September 2 editorial, titled “Shame of a Nation”?which Russert held up in his hand on NBC’s Meet the Press?calling the response to the hurricane a “scandal” and placing all the blame on the federal government. The editorial made only a brief reference to “armed-thug types” on the ground preventing the delivery of supplies.
How can coverage of a natural disaster turn into a partisan cause by the media? One of the best analysts of media bias is, not surprisingly, a Republican. Former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer wrote Taking Heat, about his battles with the press, and has fascinating comments about the CBS News attempt to discredit Bush during the presidential campaign.
“I believe CBS aired the bogus document about Bush and the National Guard because it was too good to check, at least too good to check carefully,” he said. “I think the people involved in putting the show together, including Dan Rather, thought it was probably true about Bush and let themselves be duped because they wanted the damaging information to be true. I believe if CBS had more Republicans in their newsroom, there would have been a greater tendency to check the story carefully before putting it on the air. After all, conservative bloggers caught the document’s phony type almost right away.”
The CBS smear?and the tendency in the Katrina coverage to blame Bush?demonstrate the need for more conservatives and Republicans in newsrooms.
What You Can Do