Oct 1 2005

Covering Katrina

Amid Newfound Honesty, Apologetics Continue

One of the most noted trends in the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina has been the aggressive and critical tone some journalists have adopted towards the White House and Bush administration officials.

“How could the president be so wrong, so misinformed?” Tim Russert asked on Meet the Press (9/4/05). Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation (9/04/05) declared that “government at every level failed the people it was created to serve,” calling the emergency plan “survival of the richest.” Even Shepherd Smith at Fox News (9/2/05) resisted Sean Hannity’s attempts to put the chaotic federal response in “perspective,” insisting, “This is perspective!”

Slate (9/2/05) called it “The Rebellion of the Talking Heads,” and “Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media” was how USA Today put it (9/6/05)—implying, of course, that an adversarial media had previously been burning.

But even amidst what seemed like a new willingness to confront power, signs of the old apologetic habits remained. After George W. Bush told ABC‘s Diane Sawyer, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” (9/1/05), many media outlets questioned Bush’s nonsensical claim, pointing out that such predictions were common (e.g., “Waters more than 17.5 feet above sea level will breach the leeves of Lake Ponchartrain”–Houston Chronicle, 9/16/04). But on the front page of the next morning’s New York Times (9/2/05), readers saw the headline “Government Saw Flood Risks, But Not Levee Failure,” which essentially defended Bush’s position.

The Times also defended Bush against critics who thought his reaction to the crisis was insufficient. A photo of Bush accepting a guitar from a country singer at an event in California on August 30–the day after the levees failed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast had been ravaged–seemed to illustrate that point. But Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller took issue with the fact that bloggers “circulated a picture of Mr. Bush playing a guitar at an event in California on Tuesday to imply that he was fiddling while New Orleans drowned.”

Bumiller’s rebuttal: “In fact, the picture was taken when the country singer Mark Wills presented Mr. Bush with a guitar backstage at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado, Calif., after Mr. Bush gave a speech marking the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in World War II.” It’s difficult to tell from this what complaint Bumiller had with the blogs’ presentation; perhaps she saw an important distinction between playing guitar at an event and playing guitar backstage at an event.

Bumiller was not the only journalist to come to the defense of an embattled official. When FEMA director Michael Brown told NPR on September 1 that his agency hadn’t yet heard of the evacuee crisis at the New Orleans Convention Center, many journalists seemed genuinely astonished; Nightline‘s Ted Koppel asked Brown later that day (9/1/05), “Don’t you guys watch television? Don’t you guys listen to the radio?”

But two days later, Koppel’s ABC colleague Cokie Roberts stuck up for Brown: “Well, I’m not sure who knew about it. Because, you know, nobody had heard about anything but the Superdome up until that point and I’m not sure who knew that people were at the Convention Center.” Roberts herself might have known if she had watched CNN on the night of August 31, where Chris Lawrence gave a dramatic report from the Convention Center:

There are literally thousands of people lined up at this Convention Center wandering aimlessly, I mean, mothers with their babies, little kids, walking through this putrid water. And there’s this dead body that is just sitting there. And I asked one of police officers and he said, we can’t–we can barely control the situation as it is. We can’t even worry about dead right now.

Or she could have watched Michelle Hofland on MSNBC that same night:

We are told that down there, at that Convention Center, it is absolute chaos. We haven’t been down there, Joe, because we are told that it’s just not a safe place to be. So, you have families with children and everything down at that Convention Center…. And there’s no one there, we are told, to take care of the thousands of people who are there.

One of the primary–and visible–sources of frustration for many reporters on the scene was the slow pace of rescue and relief support, but not all reporters were downbeat about the White House’s efforts. MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews, for example, declared on August 31: “Tonight, under the direct command of President Bush, the full force of the federal government is mobilized. A superpower of resources, manpower and know-how heads on an historic rescue mission to the Gulf Coast.” Matthews later added that Bush “seems very much like the old Harvard Business School kind of guy that he is, the president of the United States, today, because he delegated very clearly.”

The Washington Post editorialized the next day (9/1/05) that “the federal government’s immediate response to the destruction of one of the nation’s most historic cities does seem commensurate with the scale of the disaster. At an unprecedented news conference, many members of President Bush’s cabinet pledged to dedicate huge resources to the Gulf Coast.”

Washington Post columnist David Broder (9/4/05) even suggested that the hurricane offered Bush a political blank slate of sorts:

We cannot yet calculate the political fallout from Hurricane Katrina and its devastating human and economic consequences, but one thing seems certain: It makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public.

At the same time, media coverage has focused on how the White House has been scrambling to repair its reputation, with top Bush advisers Dan Bartlett and Karl Rove leading the concerted PR effort (“White House Enacts a Plan to Ease Political Damage,” New York Times, 9/5/05). That strategy was explained to the Times by an anonymous Republican who “said that Mr. Rove had told administration officials not to respond to Democratic attacks on Mr. Bush’s handling of the hurricane . . . the administration should not appear to be seen now as being blatantly political.” That source was granted anonymity “because of keen White House sensitivity about how the administration and its strategy would be perceived.”

The very next paragraph would suggest that the White House strategy would in fact be “blatantly political”–as the Times put it, “In a reflection of what has long been a hallmark of Mr. Rove’s tough political style, the administration is also working to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials of New Orleans and Louisiana who, as it happens, are Democrats.”

That might explain how the Washington Post (9/4/05) managed to report that, according to a “senior Bush official,” Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco “still had not declared a state of emergency” by September 3. In fact, that declaration had come on August 26, as the Post later explained in a correction. But the Post declined to name the anonymous official who had misled them; it quoted its reporter Spencer Hsu as saying (9/12/05), “We don’t blow sources, period, especially if we don’t have reason to believe the source in this case actually lied deliberately.” In other words, the Post would not reveal the identity of sources who “actually lied deliberately”–showing that the paper’s loyalties are still with its official sources and not its readers.

While a press corps that openly challenges the political elite would be a positive development, readers and viewers should question why reporters who are demonstrably angry about the response to Katrina have been so rarely moved by other events. What if there was widespread media outrage about White House fabrications about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? What if reporters had become indignant about the destruction of Iraqi cities like Fallujah, where civilians who survived the siege had to live without power and drinking water (The Nation, 12/13/04)? As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon (9/7/05):

It’s hard to decide which is more troubling: that it took the national press corps five years to summon up enough courage to report, without apology, that what the Bush administration says and does are often two different things, or that it took the sight of bodies floating facedown in the streets of New Orleans to trigger a change in the press’s behavior.