Hurricane Katrina? Blame the media

FEMA Director Michael Brown says the "24-hour news cycle is numbing our ability to think for ourselves."

By T.g.

Published September 12, 2005 3:28PM (EDT)

At some point before he was sent packing back to Washington last week, FEMA Director Michael Brown sent a woe-is-me e-mail message to family and friends. "I don't mind the negative press (well, actually, I do, but I try to ignore it) but it is really wearing out the family," Brown wrote in the message, a copy of which was obtained by the Rocky Mountain News. "No wonder people don't go into public service. This country is devouring itself, the 24-hour news cycle is numbing our ability to think for ourselves."

It's a strange comment coming from someone who seemed so tragically unaware of what that 24-hour news cycle was reporting. But be that as it may, Brown's e-mail message is typical of what we've come to expect in the right's post-Katrina blame game. First it was all the fault of the poor New Orleans residents who didn't have the good sense to fire up their shiny new SUVs and evacuate. Then it was all those looters who were disrupting the law and order that would otherwise have prevailed. Then it was the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana and anyone else they could find who didn't work directly for the president of the United States.

And all along, underlying everything else, it has been the media's fault. If Brown wasn't doing his job in the early days of Katrina -- or even if it was just that the public didn't think he was doing his job -- well, it's all because the media was "numbing our ability to think for ourselves."

It's not the first time we've heard that line. As Think Progress has noted, members of the Bush administration have claimed repeatedly that they responded so slowly to Katrina because newspapers -- "most" of them, according to Joint Chiefs chairman Richard Myers -- reported on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet." Myers said the military started its work with "those words ... in our minds." Of course, most newspapers weren't reporting that day that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. Some of the headlines we've seen from that day: "Hurricane Slams Into Gulf Coast," "Storm Thrashes Gulf Coast," "Death, Destruction," "Devastated," "Complete Devastation" and, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Catastrophic: Storm Surge Swamps 9th Ward, St. Bernard; Lakeview Levee Breach Threatens to Inundate City."

As the Wall Street Journal reports this morning, not a single major U.S. newspaper ran a headline saying "New Orleans Dodged a Bullet," as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claimed.

Did some papers fail to report the extent or existence of the flooding on that Tuesday morning? Yes, some. But some got it right Tuesday morning, and at least some state and local officials seemed to understand what was happening long before then. As the Journal notes, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said she believed that the water had breached the levees during an appearance on NBC at 7:33 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29 -- a full 24 hours before Chertoff and Myers were reading headlines that didn't exist. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was also aware of some levee breaches Monday morning, the Journal says. By Monday evening, the paper says, aerial images of the flooding were appearing on Fox News, ABC, NBC, CNN and CBS. "By early Tuesday morning, most major media had become aware of the awful extent of the destruction."

Even if they hadn't, the blame-the-media approach would still be a little hard to comprehend. The nation's TV networks and newspapers aren't responsible for saving lives in times of disaster; that's a job the government has taken on, and it's one the Bush administration promised, in the wake of 9/11, that it would be ready to do well. Was it too much to expect that the government, alerted to and allegedly mobilized for a major hurricane, would know what was happening with the levees in New Orleans? Was it too much to expect that the knowledge held by the state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday might would find its way to the appropriate federal officials by Tuesday?

There may be lots of explanations for the why the government didn't deliver in the wake of Katrina. "It's the media's fault" isn't one of them.

By T.g.


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