The Washington Times reported on September 5 that Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor, had traveled to the Gulf Coast to treat hurricane victims and was “declining offers from the press to join in fault-finding about logistical problems.” This seemed to be a preoccupation of the press-fault-finding, rather than helping victims. Insisting he was trying to hold officials accountable, NBC Meet the Press host Tim Russert was anxious on his September 4 program to blame the federal government alone for the Hurricane Katrina disaster and exonerate state and local officials.
During the midst of the crisis, when Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was trying to help victims, he appeared on Meet the Press only to be badgered by Russert. “Mr. Secretary,” said Russert, “are you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation?” Russert wasn’t interested in what Chertoff was doing to help people. “Many Americans believe now is the time for accountability,” Russert went on. And finally, Russert said, “So no heads will roll?” In addition to taking the time to explain how federal officials were helping people, Chertoff should have taken Russert to task for wasting valuable air time pursuing a partisan political agenda. Russert was a Democratic Party operative before he went into the news business.
It’s fine for the media to demand accountability. But that demand is extremely selective. When Newsweek caused anti-American riots and 17 dead in Afghanistan, after running that false “Koran in the toilet” story, no heads rolled at the magazine. Nobody was fired or even reprimanded. And we don’t remember Tim Russert or any other major media figure demanding accountability from Newsweek.
The Russert performance on Meet the Press, like so much of the coverage, was designed to send the message that reporters can be tough on the government. However, it was silly to the point of pathetic for Russert and the others to be calling for heads to roll as the relief effort was still underway. The air time could have been better spent giving out information to people about where they could find help.