Rescuing the President from Katrina

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As rescue crews and National Guard troops fan out over New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, trying to put the pieces of that flooded region back together, the political spin patrols are working overtime to construct their own narratives. As a result, some salient aspects of the story are being ignored, while other false storylines are spinning into what passes for media-reality. Although the president stood in Jackson Square in New Orleans last week and offered a few vaguely drawn outlines of his administration's belated attempt to help the ravaged coastal region, much of his plan has received only rudimentary scrutiny, in large measure because so much of the media has allowed the admittedly dramatic atmospherics of the moment to dominate their coverage. Just as Bush, Cheney and Rove exploited 9/11 to implement their longtime conservative wish list of unrelated programs, it seems the plan for this national tragedy will follow the same lines.

One of the most important and least publicized aspects of the administration’s plan calls for the partial suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates that contractors pay the "prevailing local wage" on projects that are bankrolled with federal tax dollars. Due to its suspension, contractors in the Gulf region are now free to pay workers as little as the minimum wage: $5.15 an hour. In the early days of the disaster, a group of 34 congressional Republicans began agitating for the repeal of the law, which the president supported by signing an executive order suspending Davis-Bacon. Now, construction and cleanup crews will have to try to rebuild their lives – and their communities – while pulling in a pittance. Yet no one seems to be raising the flag. It turns out that the administration is trying to pull the same trick on service workers in the region, allowing the Washington Post to play the he said/she said card perfectly, noting, "Any move to lift service wage supports would elicit protests by labor unions and their Democratic allies.”

Another aspect of the president's rebuilding plan that is being frozen out of most of the press coverage is the fact that Karl Rove, presidential kingmaker, has been appointed the head of the reconstruction effort. The New York Times made a brief reference to Rove's new position the day after the president's speech, while on Monday, frequent administration apologist Howard Kurtz seemed to support the move in an online chat on the Washington Post's site. When a reader asked, "…where is the outrage? Rove's qualification as a political operative who is currently under scrutiny in the Plame matter would seem to make him as qualified to oversee reconstruction as Michael Brown was to be head of FEMA." Kurtz, amazingly, replied, "Whatever you think of Rove, that strikes me as unfair. He's a political guy, sure, but he's the deputy chief of staff and was involved in the substance of almost all major domestic issues in the first term. The symbolism of naming Rove might be a problem, since he is a divisive symbol, but in terms of policy he's no Michael Brown." Kurtz is right here: in terms of policy, Rove is more of a Lee Atwater than a Michael Brown. Why that would make him appear qualified for this most crucial of responsibilities, however, remains unclear at best. In keeping with this theme, the media's treatment of the first rumblings for a commission to investigate how government failed so spectacularly at all levels has been spotty as well. On Tuesday, the Congressional Quarterly reported that the Government Reform Committee's Republican chairman, Tom Davis, will lead the House side of the panel, while he will help Dennis Hastert make the Republican House appointments this week. The media continually refers to the pending commission as "bi-partisan," and gives Democratic opposition to the proposed heavily Republican commission scant attention. For example, as Media Matters has pointed out, on the September 12 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux reported that Democrats refused to join the proposed investigation because "they just don't think it's a good idea." Well, sure, but that’s because they’d like an honest 9/11-style investigation of the kind the administration desperately resisted.

In addition to all of the above, old myths die hard. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, only 40 percent of Americans questioned now approve of President Bush’s performance in office, and yet the media continue to treat us to exchanges like the one that took place between Chris Matthews and Lisa Daniels on Sunday, in which cold-blooded political calculation mingled with wishful pro-presidential spin. Daniels, who had been in New Orleans, referred to the president's "likeability factor," despite his plummeting poll numbers, informing Matthews that "[t]he white folks still in the Quarter, in the French Quarter, they are not blaming President Bush. They told me directly. They're blaming New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. But they are not blaming this man. They think he cares." She then warned Matthews that "we're undermining [the president] once again. It's a perfect condition for President Bush…. This is the perfect storm for him, because it's actually going to work to his advantage." She then concluded by predicting that the lower than expected death toll will be a "win" for the president. The story of Katrina and the failures in leadership that followed is huge, and won't get any easier to cover as government agencies vie for power and billions of dollars are hastily spent and appropriated. Many members of the media have distinguished themselves in a manner unseen in decades, but the administration’s spin patrols are lying in wait, looking for an opportunity to turn this story around; reality be damned. And unfortunately, a few too many reporters are eager to give them the opportunity.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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