Katrina according to Fox

"There are a lot of good stories out there" on the right-wing cable channel. And did we mention President Bush is pouring out relief?

Published September 4, 2005 12:54AM (EDT)

"After the storm, a storm -- and I mean a storm! -- of aid!" Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto began his broadcast on Friday afternoon, as the screen flashed with images of National Guard convoys motoring in to the broken city of New Orleans, and troops doling out food and water to victims of Hurricane Katrina. To watch a few hours of Fox on Friday was to experience reassurance, some relief that things were getting better on the Gulf Coast. While the situation may have been bleak this week, Fox's anchors and reporters acknowledged, and while there still were some pockets where "law and order" -- a Fox obsession -- had not been restored, help was on the way. Or as Cavuto put it, police were "attempting to take back the city of New Orleans ... as the president of the United States takes in the damage and pours out the relief."

On other networks -- and, more important, in reality -- the president's visit to the affected areas didn't merit the same measure of optimism. While Guard troops were finally making their way to New Orleans, thousands of people remained stranded at the city's convention center. Ray Nagin, New Orleans' mayor, took to the radio to angrily denounce what he saw as the abandonment of his city by the federal authorities, an audio clip that CNN played repeatedly. And fatalities in Louisiana, some officials suggested, may reach 10,000 unless the relief effort was improved. Watching a rescue worker being lowered from a Coast Guard helicopter to rescue a woman trapped in a flooded neighborhood, CNN's Wolf Blitzer characterized the situation this way: "One story after another, it simply doesn't end, the horror that we're seeing. Even though it's the general sense today that the cavalry has arrived, in much of New Orleans the cavalry certainly has not arrived."

Flip over to Fox, though, and the picture was sunnier. "Yeah, without a doubt the story of the day is restoring law and order here in New Orleans," field reporter David Lee Miller said at one point. "During the past few hours we have witnessed a great number of National Guard troops literally pouring into this city. Also now an increasing number of people are being bussed and/or flown out of New Orleans. So the situation is improving, it has improved during the last 12 hours." But facts are stubborn things. Just after Miller described this orderly mass exodus from New Orleans, he showed a taped interview he'd conducted with a middle-aged black man at the city's convention center.

"What have they told you about when you might be able to leave?" Miller asked the man.

"They've been telling us we've been leaving since the day we got here," the man said angrily. He described a state of complete neglect -- people at the convention center were without food and water, and busses had passed by and not stopped.

"How much longer can you last here?" Miller asked.

"Not much longer at all," the man said. "If I don't leave today, something's gotta give." Miller assured the man that help was on the way. Guard troops were on the highways coming into the city, Miller told him; they'd be at the convention center soon. The man stared back blankly.

There were several moments like this on Fox on Friday, moments when reality -- the obvious horror of the conditions in which victims were living, the glaring failures of all levels of government to help these victims -- were broadcast incongruently alongside anchors' assurances that things were getting better. Fox correspondent Shepard Smith -- who, through the week, has been candid in describing the devastation in the city -- interviewed a field producer who had toured the Superdome. The producer said the place was like "a high school locker gym times 10, and then take a bathroom, take a septic tank times 100. We couldn't even walk near the restrooms -- our eyes started watering, we had to turn around and leave, we just simply couldn't do it."

Then Smith interviewed Geraldo Rivera -- whom one Fox anchor said had been "helping with the military's rescue effort" -- about casualties in the part of the city where a levee had been breached. "The word around here is that there are many, many, many, many dead bodies," Rivera said, "into the thousands in these homes. I heard one Republican congressman say 10,000 is the starting point. I think right now it is reasonable to assume that this is the worst disaster ever in terms of the dead, ever in American history."

But after all this -- after talking about the squalor of the Superdome and the possibility of thousands of casualties -- Smith said, "The corner may have been turned." The National Guard was coming to town, he assured viewers. "And tonight on 'The Fox Report,' there is good news out of here, we've worked to get it together and we'll bring it to you. We'll take you into the French Quarter, where saxophones do not play, but where residents promise they will again!"

The sensitive issues of race and class -- issues that, as any scene of devastation makes clear, dominate this tragedy -- were never broached on Fox all afternoon. Other networks, though, did give these topics some play. In an interview with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Lester Holt, the African-American MSNBC anchor, asked, "People are now beginning to voice what we've all been seeing with our own eyes -- the majority of people left in New Orleans are black, they are poor, they are the underbelly of society. When you look at this, what does this say about where we are as a country and where our government is in terms of how it views the people of this country?"

DeLay would have none of it. His boilerplate response: "What it tells me is we're doing a wonderful job and we are an incredibly compassionate people." The aid being contributed by the people in Texas and other parts of the South showed how wonderful the American people really are, DeLay explained.

Holt pressed DeLay. "I'm specifically referring to those people who are looking into our cameras saying, 'Help us.' Those people at the Superdome, those people at the convention center. They're largely black and they're largely poor, and they're largely left behind. What does that say about our country right now and how it treats its citizens?"

DeLay appeared annoyed. "Well, I know you may be trying to make an issue out of this," the congressman said, but he said that all of the people who had already been rescued are "also black, and they're getting help and people are reaching out to them. And it doesn't matter what color you are. If you're in need we're going to provide assistance."

MSNBC was also the only network to show a segment of a press briefing in which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about whether the slow federal respone to the storm had anything to do with the race of its victims. "You've spoken very eloquently around the world about growing up as an African-American in the South," a reporter asked. "Are you concerned now that at least the impression is going to exist in this country and abroad that some of the relief has been affected by the race and class of the people most affected?"

Rice professed disbelief that racism could exist in America. "That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help, I just don't believe it," she said. "Americans are generous to each other."

On Fox, instead of race relations, viewers were offered religion. How should victims cope with the disaster? They ought to reconnect with God, and they ought to remember that their extravagant earthly possessions are unimportant, Rick Warren, the author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," told Cavuto. "I would say play it down and pray it up," Warren said. "In other words, you know when you lose everything it forces you to redefine your life. If your view of who you are is based on all the things you've accumulated -- your car, your pool, your house, your boat -- and all of a sudden you wake up one day and those belongings are absolutely blown away, you have to redefine what your life is. If your definition of family is tied to the neighborhood you live in or the security gates you live behind or your made-over home, and suddenly that's gone, then you're going to have to rethink what your family is ... In the next few days millions of these Gulf State residents and millions of us who are watching it unfold are going to have to struggle with these questions. What is life really all about?"

Cavuto did not mention to Warren that many of the victims in this storm are not worried about having lost their cars, their boats, their pools, or their gated homes for the simple reason that they never had -- and probably never dreamed they could have -- all those things. If Fox asked any of the people stranded in the convention center what life is really about, there's a good chance food, water and shelter would have topped the list.

But Fox didn't do that. Because on Fox, as Cavuto said, "There are a lot of good stories out there."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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