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Who Holds the Media Accountable?

NBC Today Show host Tim Russert says that the media’s tough questioning of federal officials about the Katrina disaster reflects the need for government accountability. After all, he says, the federal government is supposed to protect people from things like this. Oh really?  Then why have there been no media demands for accountability from the FBI for not having solved the post-9/11 anthrax attacks? It’s been four years and the case is still unsolved.

The answer is that the FBI used the media to mislead the public into thinking that the case was being solved when the bureau publicly and falsely fingered former scientist Steven Hatfill as a “person of interest” or possible suspect. Hatfill has sued the government and the media for their role in destroying his life and career and letting the real perpetrators of the attacks go free. So, in this case, there are no demands for government accountability from the media because the media were complicit in the government misconduct.

The difference between the anthrax case and the Katrina disaster is that the media can use the latter for obvious political purposes to damage President Bush. In the anthrax case, a Bush appointee to run the FBI, Robert Mueller, had been on the job for only a few days when 9/11 occurred.

The media’s complicity in the FBI’s misconduct in the Hatfill case demonstrates why reporters are not entitled to a special federal media shield law to protect their government sources. Such a law would enable the media to protect the identities of the government agents who were behind the false accusations against Hatfill. Shouldn’t  these agents be identified and held accountable? Or isn’t Tim Russert concerned about government accountability in this case? If not, why not?

The notion that reporters have suddenly become concerned about government accountability in the Katrina disaster doesn’t ring true. And in this case it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Insisting that he was trying to hold officials accountable, Russert was anxious on his September 4 program to blame the federal government alone for the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff appeared on the show only to be badgered by Russert about resigning and “accountability.”

But one has to wonder what the impact would be if the federal official directing the relief effort were to suddenly quit, in response to Russert’s demand. Then the media would have something else to complain about. Then the media would charge that Chertoff had left the department short-handed at a time of crisis when he should be helping people.

Speaking of accountability, no heads rolled after NBC put on a September 2nd 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.” NBC dismissed the inflammatory and racially polarizing comments by saying that he didn’t follow the script and was giving viewers his “opinion.”

Speaking of accountability, a better use of time might be to ask local and state officials why dozens of city school buses weren’t used to evacuate poor blacks and whites from the city. An AP photo showed the buses partly underwater after the levee broke. Was this supposed to be Bush’s fault, too?

Russert’s background as a Democratic Party operative is showing through.

Russert did bring up the matter of the unused busses when he interviewed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on September 11. Nagin said he didn’t have any drivers. The interview was decidedly different than the one he had conducted on September 11 with Michael Chertoff. While Russert asked Chertoff if he would resign over alleged federal lapses, he didn’t ask Nagin to resign. Nagin, you see, is a Democrat.