Sep
09
2005

Covering Katrina

Has a More Critical Press Corps Emerged?

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.

A headline at the online magazine Slate read, "The Rebellion of the Talking Heads" (9/2/05). "Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media" is how USA Today put it (9/6/05)--implying, of course, that an "adversarial" press really existed in the first place.

Of course, this new attitude was not universal. After George W. Bush told ABC's Diane Sawyer, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" (9/1/05), many outlets questioned Bush's nonsensical claim, pointing out that such predictions were common. 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 Calfornia-- the day after the levees broke 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." Times readers were left wondering what exactly was wrong with the original presentation.

But Bush's response was not the only one that was criticized. Some reporters seemed astonished when FEMA director Michael Brown said that his agency had only heard about the gathering crisis at the New Orleans convention center on September 1, leaving ABC anchor Ted Koppel to ask him (9/1/05), "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio?" But two days later, ABC's Cokie Roberts seemed to stick 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. It's on the river so there was no, there was no directive to go there." Roberts must have missed earlier media reports regarding the crisis at the convention center, like a CNN interview with a New Orleans police officer about moving people to that site on Aug. 31.

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."

In fact, some media figures even offered optimistic predictions for Bush--a clean slate of sorts. Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote (9/4/05), "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."

But 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.

Apart from that kind of PR spin, the overriding concerns of race and class should have played a key role in a story where such realities were impossible to dismiss or ignore. Though some outlets devoted significant attention to the roles of race and class--particularly in New Orleans--by some counts it was not nearly enough. A study by Think Progress (9/4/05), a project of the liberal Center for American Progress, found that stories focusing on race and class were in short supply on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel--just 1.6 percent of stories focused on race or class issues.

And certain comments were simply considered beyond the pale. During a September 2 telethon, rapper Kanye West declared that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" and that America is set up "to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible." NBC edited his remarks for the West Coast feed of the show and issued a press release distancing the network from his words. NPR reporter Juan Williams, appearing on Fox News Sunday (9/4/05), also dismissed West's comments: "There are some people who are going so far as to say this week, 'Oh, the president doesn't care about black people,' because there were so many poor black people on the screens around the country as the victims of this tragedy. Well, I can tell you, I think that's ridiculous. I think that's kind of spouting off on people who don't know the president, don't know this administration, don't know the people who work there." Apparently West would think differently if he knew more White House staffers personally.

Amidst the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many mainstream journalists seemed to display a skepticism towards official statements and government spinning that has been absent for much of the last five years. 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 and are covering this story aggressively 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 were similarly outraged by the destruction of Iraqi cities like Fallujah, where civilians who survived the siege had to live without power and drinking water?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a more aggressive press corps seems to have caught the White House public relations team off-balance-- a situation the White House has not had to face very often in the last five years. Many might wonder why it took reporters so long; as Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon.com (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."