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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Blacked Out   

If President Bush and his key people paid more attention to the news media, the government response to the tragedy in New Orleans might not have been so tepid.

By Rachel Smolkin

President Bush once boasted that he doesn't pay much attention to news reports.

Maybe he should.

The absurd claims from the president and his top advisers gushed forth like putrid water from a busted levee: No one could have foreseen the damage that Hurricane Katrina has wrought. No one could have prepared for this tragedy. No one knew about the thousands of desperate and dying people huddled in squalor in New Orleans' convention center. No one knew.

Except that someone did know. "A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands," a prophetic report in New Orleans' Times-Picayune predicted in June 2002. "It's just a matter of time."

When that time came, so did the media. Journalists navigated logistics as daunting as any war zone to enter the festering waters of an overflowing Lake Pontchartrain, the nauseating stench of the Louisiana Superdome and the horrifying chaos of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. They set up live shots in front of bodies floating in the muck or slumped in chairs waiting for help that never arrived. Their reporting was raw and real, their questions passionate and unrelenting. Where was the government? Where was the help for these people?

On NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, September 4, an exasperated Tim Russert sternly lectured Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "People were stunned by a comment the president of the United States made on Wednesday, Mr. Secretary," Russert told him. "He said, 'I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.' How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed?"

Maybe because those he depends upon for information were equally misinformed.

In September 2003, Bush told Fox News anchor Brit Hume: "I glance at the headlines," but "I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who...probably read the news themselves." He said that "a lot of times there's opinions mixed in with news" and "the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

This time, though, his staff failed him, and the media--that oft-derided, oft-bungling band--got it right.

On September 1, ABC's Ted Koppel asked Michael Brown, the besieged director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, why he kept saying he had just found out about the situation at the convention center that day. "Don't you guys watch television?" Koppel demanded on "Nightline." "Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today."

Brown replied: "We learned about it factually today that that [is] what existed."

If Brown was implying that the media don't always get their facts straight, the man has a point. The past few years have brought a depressing deluge of factual distortions and outright fabrications.

But this time the media were on hand performing one of their most fundamental duties: exposing the plight of the powerless, of children, elderly and infirm abandoned by their government.

If not for the reporters who risked their own lives to reveal suffering, would women and children still be getting raped at the Superdome? Would people fleeing those hellholes still be stranded, blistered and dehydrated, in the scorching heat on Interstate 10? Would looters and thugs have seized the city?

When the administration did finally pay some attention to the news, it was only to resort to a familiar ritual of media bashing. The "media has a fascination with the blame game, and instead of looking for what can we do to help now, there's a lot of 'Why didn't we do something different?' " former President George H.W. Bush told Larry King on CNN Monday night.

Blaming the media is fun, and often amply justified. But this time people died who might have been saved.

As reporters uncovered those sickening stories, the American people were paying attention. The Bush administration should have been, too.