Home > coverstory > 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)梚mplying, 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�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.”

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