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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

See No Evil   

FEMA’s efforts to block photos of New Orleans’ dead is right out of the playbook of the “no bad news” administration.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Perfect.

Dead solid perfect.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration's efforts to prevent journalists from photographing the dead bodies of victims of Hurricane Katrina is right out of the playbook of the "no bad news" administration.

It's like the old riddle about a tree falling in the forest and no one hearing it. The Bush administration is unrivaled in its belief that if you don't show it, it didn't happen.

FEMA rejected requests for journalists to be on rescue boats searching for the dead of New Orleans. The beleaguered agency, whose initial response to the tragedy of the flooding was so badly botched, said it simply wanted to make sure that "the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect."

Right.

The decision hardly should be filed under the heading of Great Surprises. It is of a piece with the administration's refusal to allow the news media to take pictures of the coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Just as those photographs would be vivid reminders of the deadly consequences of a war launched on the basis of bogus evidence and without any semblance of an exit strategy, images of the flood victims would underscore the real-life fallout of the government's slo-mo response to Katrina.

The administration did a masterful job of making Iraq a seemingly no-impact war as far as the United States was concerned. Sure, Americans were dying, and there was chaos in Iraq. But administration officials kept minimizing the downside and stressing that everything was under control.

And for a time the spin prevailed. Sunny pronouncements that the insurgents were in their death throes and we simply needed to stay the course seemed to work their magic.

But as the suicide bombings became more and more frequent, as the body count rose, as the rapid conquest of Saddam evolved into what increasingly seemed like a war without end, the American people became restive, and Bush's ratings plummeted to record lows.

Similarly, the president's response after he roused himself from his vacation was filled with fond memories of his visits to the city formerly known as the Big Easy and praise for the efforts of hapless FEMA honcho Michael Brown.

But even spin has its limits. Denial was no match for the vivid images of the widespread suffering of New Orleans' poor. Denial and obfuscation were quickly overwhelmed by the ugly face of reality.

And once again we were reminded that journalism matters. Forget the endless stream of journalistic fumbles, the blogosphere's obits for the MSM, the self-inflicted wounds caused by penny-pinching owners with a penchant for infotainment. When it counted, the news media delivered. Journalists made clear the discrepancies between the mumbo-jumbo of the government and the hard facts of life.

And FEMA's pathetic attempt to downplay the devastation of Mother Nature and the fumbling of the bureaucrats won't change that a bit.