The Return of Self-Respect

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When the New York Times reported Monday that the Bush administration is enacting a plan – directed by Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett – to “move the blame for the slow response [to Katrina] to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan,” one thing was clear: The news media had finally done their job.

Much like the days and weeks following the attacks on September 11, over the past week reporters, television anchors, and commentators have proven that when the chips are down, they remember why they went into this job in the first place. (It surely wasn’t money.)

The reporters of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans of course had one of the most difficult jobs of any group of reporters during this crisis – they had to continue to tell the story while their own homes were being inundated with water and their families’ lives were in danger. You can say that they’ve been doing their job for years, however, as the now-infamous series of stories they published in 2003 and 2004 anticipated some of the current nightmare the Gulf Coast finds itself in, and laid out the potential consequences of the Bush administration’s funding cuts for flood and levee repairs.

To their credit, the rest of the media, print, online and TV – even cable TV –picked up on these stories quickly, exposing the president’s contention that no one expected the levees to break as little more than an utterance by a man who wouldn’t even cut his five-week vacation short to lead the nation as one of its major cities was evacuated.

Television reporters were the most visible actors on the scene during the crisis, and have left us with some of the most indelible images from last week. On the Thursday night edition of Nightline, Ted Koppel spoke with Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and went for it from the get-go. In his questioning, Koppel found that Brown had only just learned that tens of thousands of people had taken refuge at the New Orleans convention center – despite the fact that the news media had been reporting this for at least a day – and took him to the mat for his incompetence. When, a little later, Brown explained how surprised he was that not everyone left the city before the storm, and that FEMA was currently trying to help those who didn’t, Koppel shot back with, “Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead. They’re beyond your help … you say you were surprised by the fact that so many people didn’t make it out. It’s no surprise to anyone that you had at least 100,000 people in the city of New Orleans who are dirt poor [and couldn’t afford to evacuate the city].”

Just a few hours before Koppel let Brown have it, CNN’s Anderson Cooper lit in to Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, who was trying to defend the federal government’s role in the recovery effort, telling him “I don't know if you've heard … but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.”

Cooper interrupted, “I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. … And when [people] hear politicians slap – you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.”

But Brown wasn’t nearly off the hook. On Friday morning, Soledad O’Brien slapped him around a bit on the same subject as Koppel, taking him to task for not knowing how bad the situation at the convention center was. When he told her that FEMA didn’t know about people congregating at the convention center until Thursday, she asked him, “How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting? …We were showing live pictures of the people outside of the Convention Center… I don't understand how FEMA cannot have this information.” For the record, Paula Zahn also had a go-around with Brown, giving him the same treatment as Koppel and O’Brien.

In a report published on its Web site the other day, the BBC made the observation that the hurricane coverage is the first time since Watergate that the members of the U.S. media have forcefully stood up to politicians and those in power – though they might have added “in a story about something other than sex.” In a sense this may be true, but that’s not the whole story. Over the past week, reporters have not simply called politicians on their lies and evasions (often to their faces), which happens all too infrequently, but they also showed a concern with checking the facts and doing due diligence before filing their stories. Sadly, this is a slightly remarkable fact, but one that is happily noted in this instance.

In the face of the newfound desire on the part of journalists to speak truth to power, the Bush administration is setting up the usual “liberal media” smear campaign, and we’re sure to see right-wing pundits pick up on this theme in short order. After all, why give up on a scam that has worked every time?

One hopes that amid the media-bashing that will surely come from the media’s upfront role in this crisis, even the most vocal critics will find time to commend the journalists who risked their lives to stay in dangerous situations in order to give the voiceless a voice, and transmit the horror to a stunned nation.

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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