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The Buck Stops Where?

Back on March 6, 2003, the president held what has become an infamous pre-Iraq White House press conference – his first meeting with the press in four months – that has stuck with us more for what came after than what happened during. While the president set the nation on a course to war that, admittedly, appeared inexorable, he failed repeatedly to explain what drove his urgency. Why could the inspection process not be allowed to continue? Why couldn’t they produce any hard evidence of a significant al Qaeda connection? Why was Colin Powell’s U.N. briefing on the evidence so unconvincing to the other members of the Security Council?

Instead, most of those present preferred to punt, lobbing pro-war softballs before a nationally televised audience. Why was this? According to the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller, it was just too scary to do otherwise. "I think we were very deferential because … it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time," she later explained. And she was hardly alone. NBC anchor Brian Williams recently told the AP, "By dint of the fact that our country was hit we've offered a preponderance of the benefit of the doubt over the past couple of years. Perhaps we've taken something off our fastball…." Need more? Andrea Mitchell, who is married to Alan Greenspan and went after John Edwards on her network when he had the temerity to criticize her husband in a vice-presidential debate, could not help admitting, "I think there has been self-censorship … and that since 9-11, or after 9-11, there was sort of a rallying around – and understandable sort of patriotic effect – and I think reporters were less challenging."

All of these “now you tell us” comments bring to mind comments made this past May by CNN's Judy Woodruff, who spoke of the seeming impossibility of serious journalism to have any effect on the machinations of power in official Washington anymore. Speaking about the Watergate scandal, she said, "It is so hard, I think, for young people we know who work here at CNN and other news organizations to even imagine what Watergate was like. To have a White House come undone, an administration come undone, because of some news reporting." It sounds like another world.

The media’s willingness to take on official lies and excuse-making in the wake of the Katrina catastrophe proved all the more jarring, therefore, because of what came before it. Salon, for its part, put together a video montage called "Reporters Gone Wild," featuring Ted Koppel, Shepard Smith, Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert, among others, lambasting public officials, to their faces, of all things, about the government's pathetic response to the aftermath of Katrina. It was as if too many Daily Show reports had finally jarred the inner reporter in what had previously been—with a few honorable exceptions—a high-paid stenography pool.

It will therefore be all the more interesting—and crucial for the nation’s political future—to see whether the media return to their bad old ways of accepting every “my dog ate it” excuse the administration has to offer for its repeated failure to display even rudimentary competence (or honesty) in the conduct of their affairs. Bush administration officials, including most prominently the president himself, continue to resist citizens’ demands for an independent 9/11-style commission, preferring the political protection of a Republican-controlled effort in Congress. In this Potemkin investigation, viewers were graced with the spectacle of former FEMA head Michael Brown (who is still on the agency's payroll) attempting to blame Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor c= Ray Nagin for his own agency’s failures.

“Brownie” also, somewhat surprisingly and ungratefully – given the fact that he had been graced with a job for which he had no apparent qualifications – pointed his finger at the Bush administration for what he called the "emaciation" of FEMA after round upon round of budget cuts forced the agency to let go of key personnel. Of course the media treated the catfight aspect of this accusation as irresistible. What might have been more useful, however, would have been a review of the extreme budgetary restrictions placed on FEMA by the president's spending priorities.

One report, appearing in the Los Angeles Times, predicted that Brown’s appearance was “likely to keep the Bush administration on the political defensive as it tries to project a strong commitment and direction in dealing with rebuilding New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast." This almost reflexive instinct on the part of the press to consider the president's political health, rather than the health of the nation, has been one of the aspects of the weakness of its coverage that has allowed the administration to evade paying the price for its dishonesty and incompetence time and again. Responsibility must lie somewhere in the system. The buck has to stop somewhere. Back in 2002, the Brookings Institution had occasion to praise FEMA for emerging as one of the most effective arms of the federal government after years of "determined effort" helping victims of major disasters like floods, fires and hurricanes.

What happened to that effectiveness and why weren’t we told when it did? It would behoove those charged by the First Amendment to act as the watchdogs of our leaders to demonstrate a little enterprise in determining—and explaining—just what went so terribly wrong in New Orleans and what can be done to prevent it from happening over and over.

In other words, let the "blame game" begin, but call it by its rightful name: "democratic accountability."

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.