The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: The City That "Fair" Forgot

Jim Amrhein examines the Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina and finds it decidedly wanting, and discusses the rebuilding efforts and what should be done.

ONCE AGAIN, September finds our nation sifting through the rubble, death, and carnage of a great catastrophe. A mighty hurricane has drowned New Orleans in what will surely prove to be the nation’s most devastating disaster, perhaps not in loss of life (that title belongs to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906), but most certainly in dollars, number of displaced people, loss of property, and national economic paralysis.

Before I weigh in with my thoughts on the matter, I want to say this: Like my fellow Whiskey columnist Mr. Shedlock, I also send my condolences and sympathy out to any whose lives have been directly touched by Hurricane Katrina. Even though I’m not one of those unfortunate souls myself, I am nevertheless deeply saddened on many levels by this cataclysm. And not to diminish the loss of life or property, but it seems like more than just a city has been washed away by this storm….

Among these things are journalistic objectivity, all known (remaining, I should say) standards of political restraint, and one of the great traits that has heretofore been a hallmark of the American spirit: our unity and solidarity in time of crisis.

The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Instant Obfuscation — Just Add Water!

Like I’ve said in this forum before about other subjects, I’m not an expert at much of anything — just a regular guy who calls ’em like he sees ’em. And the way I see it (the way a lot of others seem to be seeing it, too), the federal response to Katrina has left a lot to be desired, especially in the early stages. But to be clear before I get started: I’m not arguing that point, nor would anyone who’s attempting to be even remotely objective.

However, there’s something else I see, too: That it seems like all the mainstream media are looking to blame the current presidential administration for every aspect of this catastrophe, from insufficient preparedness, to slow and inadequate relief, to the lack of law and order — even the hurricane itself. Yes, some pundits (including lawyer/enviro-activist Bobby Kennedy Jr.) are actually pointing to the White House as the REASON for the disaster, citing global warming “caused” by the United States not signing onto the corrupt Kyoto Protocol being the genesis of Katrina….

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not defending the Bush environmental policy. I’m just pointing out the ludicrousness of that assertion. We could argue until the next Ice Age about what constitutes appropriate measures to limit CO2 emissions, but I’d hope that no matter WHAT your views are, you couldn’t possibly be so extreme or naive to believe that short of an all-out nuclear war, our nation (or the entire human race, for that matter) could alter the Earth’s climate drastically — or even measurably — within the span of any U.S. president’s term. It simply can’t happen.

Beyond this, a lot of news sources have been trumpeting the assertion that the Bush administration is also responsible for the New Orleans levees being subpar because of funding earmarked for their improvement being diverted (no wordplay intended) to the war in Iraq. And according to recent articles in The Washington Post and other sources, the Bush administration’s budget did indeed fall well short of what state and federal officials requested — and what ongoing levee-bolstering programs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called for….

However, what you WON’T find front and center in the article — or in any one of the multitude of others I’ve seen on the subject — is the fact that even if these entities had gotten the full amount of requested funding, their plans wouldn’t have been anywhere near complete by the time Katrina loosed her wrath. Nor would the levee program they designed have saved New Orleans even if it had been complete. At a full-blown Category 4, the storm was stronger than what even the government’s most ambitious levee proposal in history had anticipated.

So if anything, the administration’s reduction in funding for levees that would’ve been overrun anyway actually saved tens of millions of dollars — and on a project that wouldn’t have saved a single life, building, or political reputation.

Hearing that anywhere in the headlines?

The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Sound Byte Booby-Trap “Diverts” From Historic News

As if any further evidence is needed pointing to a rather extreme bias in the media’s disaster coverage, I offer this: Remember reading the huge headlines over the last few days about how President Bush “accepted responsibility” for the lackluster federal response to Katrina?

Now, how many of you know that the root of this story that’s all over the media was Bush’s brief answer to an off-topic question an Associated Press reporter asked at a White House press conference — a gathering in which newly elected Iraqi President Jalal Talabani spoke at length and in encouraging terms about the future of his nation?

That’s right: The press were gathered ostensibly to report on and ask questions about a historic meeting between the presidents of the world’s most prominent and fledgling democracies — and the first question out of the gate was something very close to this: “Shouldn’t the United States, in the aftermath of Katrina, be worried about our ability to respond to natural disasters or terrorist attacks?”

Not: “What’s in store for the future of Iraq?” Or: “Does an Iraqi democracy mean the region’s Shiites and Kurds need no longer fear oppression?” Nor even something as pointed as: “How long until the United States is out of Iraq for good?”

No, question No. 1 was about a natural disaster, and it was aimed not at informing or reporting the solutions to that disaster, but at assigning blame for it. Plus, we got a 500-word story picked up by most every major news service about the president’s three-sentence response — the headline was a real beaut, too: Bush Takes Responsibility for Blunders.

Nowhere in the AP story did it mention the HUGE NEWS that new Iraqi President Talabani characterized the liberation of Iraq as the “right decision,” stated that the new Iraqi Constitution is among the best ever written, and implored all the journalists in the room to come see with open eyes and minds all the good things that are happening in that formerly oppressed nation. Other than on a lone NPR broadcast of highlights from the actual conference, I didn’t read or hear any of this anywhere….

So do you think the mainstream press is milking the Katrina story to advance its own political aims — and to overshadow encouraging news about the war they so vehemently oppose? You be the judge. But from where I’m sitting, it’s obvious that Big Media have a big agenda (the Katrina story is just the latest evidence of it): to undermine the current presidential administration and to paint the Iraq war in as unfavorable a light as possible.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that I agree or disagree with the Iraq war, or that I even support President Bush. That’s not the point of this piece. I’m only saying that we’re not hearing in the major news sources an anywhere-near-balanced or complete reporting of anything that involves this administration. That includes Katrina, Iraq, Rovegate, you name it. There have been major omissions and factual errors in almost all of it.

Think about it: If the media are so biased and deluded as to ignore the monumental history that’s being revealed at a press conference right in front of them in order to garner a 10-second sound bite that can be spun into a confession of responsibility for a NATURAL DISASTER, what makes anyone think what they’re telling us about the disaster itself is the gospel?

The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Forcing “Black and White” Angle Gives Black Eye to Credibility

Here’s yet another example: To hear many in the mainstream media tell it, the Bush administration was intentionally slow in organizing relief because the victims were poor and black! This is a ridiculous assertion on so many levels as to be laughable — chief among them the fact that no presidential administration would ever be so stupid as to risk the appearance of being racist. Yes, the administration was slow to react to Katrina in some key ways, but race played no part in the reasons for that, I’m certain.

But do we hear a balanced attack in the news? Are any in the major media hypothesizing that the overwhelmingly Democratic leadership of the state of Louisiana intentionally sacrificed those poor, black victims by holding up their requests for federal disaster aid just to make the Republican administration look bad?

For the record, I don’t actually believe this — but it’s no more absurd a notion than the idea that Bush dragged his feet because the victims weren’t his own color!

It brings up another good point, too: States have to formally request federal disaster aid before they can receive most types of it. If what I’ve heard is correct, short of an invasion or armed revolt (an argument could be made that the Big Easy’s seemingly overnight transition to a semi-anarchic state would have qualified), the president can’t just send in the Army or National Guard like the mainstream talking heads would have us believe. Apparently, it’s a bit more complicated than that….

Of course, this fact is hardly making headlines, either.

Lastly on this point, I don’t remember all this hubbub about insufficient federal aid last year when Florida was slammed four times in rapid succession by storms. Hell, if there had been a federal relief effort back then of the scope the mainstream’s clamoring for now, it would have been called nepotism, or favoritism to a red state! So why such a blame frenzy now? Could it be because the left-leaning media — not to mention many politicians on both sides of the fence — have found a way to capitalize on catastrophe to serve their own ends?

For me, the bottom line is this (not that I’m the first to have said this — I’m definitely not): It isn’t the media’s job to shape public opinion, only to report the FACTS that shape it. Instead of serving as the watchdog “fourth branch of government” that keeps our rights intact and the government from becoming hopelessly corrupt, the mainstream media has assumed the role of policy maker and agenda driver. Under the guise of information, it has become a political entity of its own.

What they don’t realize is that they’re shooting themselves in the foot: Their obvious bias makes it more likely that involved, thinking people like you and me will grant the current administration greater quarter or benefit-of-the-doubt than perhaps they deserve. After all, since we aren’t getting all the facts straight up, we’re left certain of only one thing: that much of the mainstream media is full of BS!

Of course, anyone with two eyes and half a brain has already concluded this long ago. The coverage of Hurricane Katrina is just the latest and most egregious example. And thankfully, the American public is starting to see this en masse. Newspaper circulations are way down almost across the board, as are subscriptions to the bigger news weeklies. The Big Three networks are seeing their clout eroded by relative newcomers FOX, CNN, and others (not that they’re the paragons of objectivity, either). The Internet is helping, too. People are starting to realize that there are more sources of information out there than there have been in the past.

And that’s a good thing.

The Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Greed Begets Need

Enough about the media. Back to New Orleans, which has for years been nicknamed “the city that care forgot,” owing to its mix of both opulent glamour and extreme decadence. How morbidly appropriate a moniker now, given the systemic failure at all levels to deal with Katrina’s wrath. The most obvious question, of course, is this: Why wasn’t New Orleans better prepared for the disaster everyone knew was coming someday?

As surely as those in San Francisco know that one day the Big Rumble will hit (they’ve taken extensive steps to both prepare for it and minimize its potential for damage, by the way) and as surely as Florida’s coast and the Outer Banks of North Carolina know how to brace for a hurricane, no one except the most clueless tourist could possibly have been unaware of the potential for massive, catastrophic flooding in New Orleans — a city that’s BELOW SEA LEVEL and surrounded on all sides by three bodies of water, including one of the largest rivers on Earth.

True to its reputation, New Orleans was clearly gambling on its very existence.

And although the extent of the federal government’s lack of decisive action after the flooding is almost universally agreed upon (and might one day be cataloged by an independent investigation), this will change no aspect of the fact the New Orleans itself was utterly unprepared. It simply forgot to care.

Of course, the politicians in that district didn’t forget to care about bringing a $400 million Harrah’s casino to town in the late 1990s. Nor did they forget to construct the state-of-the-art Aquarium of the Americas on the waterfront. And they definitely didn’t forget to build the Superdome, one of the largest indoor event venues in the world, right in the downtown area….

What they DID forget to do was such unsexy, nonheadline-grabbing things as bolster levees; improve highways and escape routes; and stock up on medicine and disaster-related supplies, buses and boats. They also clearly forgot to MAKE A DECENT PLAN. Like Florida, the Outer Banks, the Chesapeake Bay region, towns along Tornado Alley, cities on the San Andreas Fault, or those located in blizzard zones, the Big Easy — more than any of these others, perhaps, should have had better plans in place and had them drilled into both residents and emergency personnel until it was automatic.

That would have been the difference between a lawless, desperate city without hope and a city whose resourceful people were prepared to improvise, adapt, overcome, and look after their neighbors in a time of crisis they all knew was coming. No amount of federal disaster aid can change the fact that New Orleans’ longtime leadership sold their own people down the river — literally — in favor of big-money projects designed to promote tourism, sports revenue, casino gaming, the Mardi Gras experience, and just about anything else that could put money into the city’s coffers. Pure greed.

Now all the money’s gone, and they need someone to blame. They gambled and lost.

The Media Coverage of Hurricane katrina: An American Atlantis?

Right now, instead of finger-pointing, we as a nation should be banding together. Oddly, it seems like we’re choosing sides instead of taking action. Some cities are turning away “refugees” from New Orleans, while many Americans seem to be adopting a “not my problem” or “serves them right” stance. This feels un-American to me, and is in stark contrast to the post-Sept. 11 unity that marked the terrorist attacks in 2001. No doubt this is a response to our own politicians and media engaging in a massive “blame game,” instead of rallying toward coordinated solutions. I can hope that’s what it is, anyway….

And unlike a lot of others I’ve been reading (who suggest we just let the Big Easy die), I feel that it’s absolutely vital to rebuild New Orleans — and to do it RIGHT this time.

Why? Because in my opinion, no other city in the United States is as distinctly American as New Orleans. Nope, not even New York. The Big Easy is the quintessential melting pot. Since its origins, the city has been a tempestuous, yet strangely tolerant mix of French, Indian, Spanish, English, black, white, Christians, pagans, pirates, rich, poor, merchants, scholars, farmers, fishers, and every other kind of person imaginable since long before the Statue of Liberty ever stood or “melting pot” became our informal national brand.

Even the very tenuousness of the city’s existence in the face of possible imminent natural catastrophe embodies the spirit of early America: a ragtag bunch of survivors of every stripe, building a rich and prosperous life even as they’re beset on all sides by hostile forces — and forced to improvise, adapt, and tolerate for their very existence.

Besides, no place has contributed more to our nation’s culture — our art, music, written word, and our very beliefs about tolerance and equality — than this icon of the American South. And as much of a tragedy it is to lose it for a time to the mighty waters of the roiling Mississippi, it would seem even more of one to let New Orleans go forever, along with all that it signifies….

I say this: As we are rebuilding the Twin Towers site after Sept. 11, let us rebuild the “city that care forgot” in a way that’s permanent and everlasting, so that future generations can live and visit there and learn its lessons…

And so that “laissez-les bon temps rouler!” may once again be heard in deadly delta.

Sincerely and hopefully yours,
Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
September 19, 2005