Heckuva Job, Mainstream Media

There’s a clear lack of evidence behind the claim that the BP oil spill is President Obama’s “Katrina,” writes Eric Alterman.

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President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters at the Coast Guard Venice Station in Venice, LA, as he visits the Gulf Coast region affected by the BP oil spill. The mainstream media is buying into the weak claim that the BP oil spill is Obama's "Katrina." (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters at the Coast Guard Venice Station in Venice, LA, as he visits the Gulf Coast region affected by the BP oil spill. The mainstream media is buying into the weak claim that the BP oil spill is Obama's "Katrina." (AP/Charles Dharapak)

OK, everybody relax about the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana (now about the size of southern Africa). William Kristol, who, after all, has never been wrong about anything before, reassures, “The oil spill, itself, I don’t think will be a huge disaster over the medium and long-term honestly.”

What’s more, it’s not really anybody’s fault. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry explains, nothing can be done in the face of an “act of God” like a piece of faulty man made machinery failing to function. On this point, though, Gov. Perry disagrees with his fellow conservatives Rush Limbaugh and the members of “Fox and Friends” (including former Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino). El Rushbo and company think this was a plot by some environmentalists: “What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig?” Of course, Rush isn’t accusing anyone, “just noting the timing here.”

Similarly, when Perino introduces her conspiracy theory by asking, sans evidence, “if there was sabotage involved,” she is “not trying to introduce a conspiracy theory” before asking, “But was this deliberate?” Next thing you know, the story has already taken off, as host Steve Doocy asked Fox Business’s Eric Bolling to respond to the suggestion, apparently made frequently, that “there’s a possibility this could be sabotage.”

I’ll be honest that initially I had higher hopes for my conservative friends. You would think that by now they would have learned not to make predictions that can be so easily disproved by reality. But then I realize I should really be disappointed with myself. When will I learn? There is no “reality” for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News save Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. (Bill Kristol, on the other hand, occasionally takes some ribbing from his fellow current and ex-colleagues at The Washington Post, Time, and The New York Times, where he either has been or is a valued columnist.) But such arguments are bound to have limited effect on the mainstream media, where reporters are supposed to employ better sourcing than the kind you see above.

A better tactic for right-wing exploitation of a manmade disaster that happens to contradict previous “drill, baby, drill” conservative arguments would be to invent a nonsensical narrative that can be neither proven nor disproved but can somehow appear to discredit liberals—at least if one doesn’t look too carefully at the logic.

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but shortly after the extent of the disaster became known, the headline “Is the Gulf Oil Disaster Obama’s Katrina?” appeared on the websites of “,” and “” Actually, it’s probably not so coincidental, since a Wednesday afternoon Google News search on the terms “Obama, Oil, Katrina” yielded 11,579 articles (so far). As Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert noticed long before I did, this notion had dominated mainstream media coverage without any help from the folks who think President Obama needs to be “exposed” or “bitch[ed] about.”

Almost always, the comparison was made without any context or evidence of any genuine similarity between the two incidents—save both of them being bad news for New Orleans. Boehlert notes that the most prominent of the early comparisons came on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when George Stephanopoulos interviewed President Obama advisor David Axelrod and launched into the Katrina meme big time. (Boehlert notes that he actually beat Limbaugh to the proverbial punch on this point.) Next came the veritable tsunami of lousy similes from Stephanopoulos all based on “whispers” and what “some critics say” with weasel word piled atop weasel word.

How does the comparison actually stack up? Let’s go to the videotape. Leave aside the fact that Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and caused more than $80 billion in damage. As Paul Tullis writes in True/Slant, the two disasters have pretty much nothing in common. He notes this with considerable evidence and so I urge you to click on the entire post.

  • Katrina was not an accident, and, as such, it was predictable.
  • Hurricanes are forecast. The type of accident that exacerbated the spill has never happened before.
  • Bush deliberately dismantled the system for responding to disasters, both directly and indirectly.
  • Bush slept, and New Orleans wept. President Obama was on the case from day one.

Remember Michael Brown, or “Brownie?” The Arabian Horse Association guy whom George W. Bush put in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency? Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) thought he was a great pick because of his “extensive management experience.” Brownie told fire and rescue departments outside flooded areas in New Orleans not to bother providing trucks or emergency workers unless directly appealed for. (Chicago Mayor Richard P. Daley, among many others, never got an answer for his offer.) Days into the crisis, Brownie admitted on CNN that he had no idea that city and state officials had placed thousands of evacuees, without sufficient food and water, in the Superdome, though anyone watching the news already knew it. He also attacked those who “who chose not to evacuate, who chose not to leave the city.”

All in all, exactly like President Obama’s response to the oil spill.

Brownie returned on—you guessed it—Fox News to offer the hypothesis that the Obama administration wanted the oil spill to happen—and let it get really bad before stepping in so they’d have a good reason to scrap offshore drilling.

Meanwhile, there is one respect in which Katrina may share some similarities with the oil spill, though it’s pretty clear that it’s not one that Stephanopoulos and others had in mind. As the always perspicacious William Galston notes, it may be that Dick Cheney played a significant role in helping to enable both. Take a look at his careful parsing of the evidence here.

Heckuva job all around, guys.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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