Opinion: Media Mangle

A Gathering Storm for the Media

Misreporting on hurricane further eroding public's trust of media

There is a fetid stink in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it’s not coming just from the fouled waters flooding New Orleans. It also wafts from the putrid reporting of the disaster by the mainstream media.

From the moment Katrina made landfall the media focused on anything that could redound to the detriment of President Bush or inflame race and class tensions. Reporters and commentators ignored the dismal performance of New Orleans’ Democratic mayor and Louisiana’s Democratic governor, blaming every problem that arose on the Bush administration.

Racial demagogues accused Bush and his administration of reacting slowly because most of the victims were black. Environmental activists said Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty caused Katrina’s severity. Democratic operatives said the administration’s decision to cut funding for a long-term study of flood control caused the levees to breach.

All of this is stuff and nonsense. The tragedy is that the media know it too, but they still printed it.

The media know that the first response to natural disasters is always from the local and state governments. They’ve covered enough hurricanes to understand that. They know, or should know, that the response from the federal government, especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is always in the second phase of recovery, not the first. They know, or should know, that a state’s National Guard is commanded by the governor, not the president. They know, or should know, that active-duty U.S. military personnel cannot act as law enforcement. But none of this was reported.

As for a president’s role, it has traditionally been in declaring disaster areas so that the victims can get grants and low-interest loans to rebuild, and ordering FEMA into the area. His role also traditionally includes a visit to the stricken area. That’s pretty much it, unless you’re George W. Bush; then that’s not enough. Not reported was that it was Bush himself who, before the storm hit, pleaded with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to order a mandatory evacuation.

The misreporting of the tragedy, and the false impression it has left with some, is even being used now for other political advantage. On Monday, NBC’s Matt Lauer interviewed “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert about Bush’s Supreme Court appointments. Russert said “there was a perception created of incompetence, some even said callousness and he needs to replace it with compassion” by appointing a moderate, a liberal or even a minority to the high court.

At least Russert was correct on one point. There was a “perception created.” The incessant drone of the media story line that Bush was to blame is what created that impression, and one that is entirely false. As with the run-up to the military operation in Afghanistan and Iraq, the media display a convenient amnesia about what they wrote in the past.

The story line today is that things were self-evidently so catastrophic as Katrina made landfall that everyone knew that drastic measures were called for. But was that the case? Here’s what The News & Observer of Raleigh’s public editor, Ted Vaden, wrote on Sunday:

“The N&O, like many other papers, was slow to wake up to the dimensions of the crisis but gradually ramped up the coverage in terms of space and reporters committed to the story,” he wrote. “The media were fooled the first day of the hurricane, when Katrina didn’t make a direct hit on New Orleans as expected. ‘I think that everybody got a head fake from this thing,’ said Dan Barkin, deputy managing editor. ‘I think we were kind of lulled.’”

Vaden pointed out that “the follow-up coverage on Wednesday likewise was restrained.” This candid assessment pretty much reflects the way most of the media covered the storm at the beginning. It was only after the incompetence of the mayor of New Orleans and the state’s governor in not forcing a pre-storm evacuation that the extent of the human tragedy unfolded. But instead of reporting this truth, it became a Bush bash fest.

And it continues. An Associated Press report from this morning was headlined: “Bush finally spending time on hurricane relief.” Finally. That’s the template word now. I saw that one coming Friday afternoon when I heard it used at least 10 times on National Public Radio to describe Bush’s actions regarding the hurricane.

Polls show that, unlike the media, the public does not blame Bush for the hurricane, the rioting, the looting, the stranded pets, the drowning deaths or the levee breaks. That means that the public doesn’t believe what the media are reporting. That’s the real gathering storm.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper, Carolina Journal.