Reporters Confront Leaders on Government's Response
By Scott Collins
Times Staff Writer
September 3, 2005
News coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina turned confrontational late this week, as many reporters shed their stance of neutrality and joined numerous commentators in criticizing local, state and federal officials for their seemingly slow reaction to the calamity.
On Thursday's "Nightline," ABC News' Ted Koppel assailed Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown for his inability to offer an accurate count of refugees at the New Orleans Convention Center: "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today."
On CNN, reporter Soledad O'Brien also lit into Brown: "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting? â€¦ Why no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck."
"No one, no one in government is doing a good job in handling one of the most atrocious and embarrassing and far-reaching calamitous things that has come along in this country in my lifetime," said CNN commentator Jack Cafferty. The cable network reported being flooded with e-mails praising Cafferty's diatribe.
Also on CNN, Anderson Cooper had a bristling exchange Thursday evening with Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who was thanking leaders and praising the emergency aid bill Congress was about to pass.
"Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi," Cooper said. "And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustratedâ€¦. 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."
On MSNBC, host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough called the situation in the Gulf Coast region "nothing short of a national disgrace."
Commentators who have proved friendly to Republicans criticized some of the relief efforts, if not the Bush administration directly.
Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News Channel's highly rated "The O'Reilly Factor," told viewers Thursday: "The country expects the government to control law breaking in the hurricane zone, to provide food and shelter, and to prevent any person or company from exploiting this desperate situation."
News executives defended the tenor of the coverage, saying that reporters witnessing the devastation were best qualified to press government officials about reports that did not correlate to what they were seeing, they said.
"They should be challenged â€” how did it get this bad?" asked Steve Capus, senior vice president of NBC News. "Why did it take so long to get these people help? Something went wrong."
Reporters must not become part of the story, but it is appropriate for them to show emotion, Capus said. "What other side of the story is there when Americans are dying in evacuation shelters?"
Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of CBS News, said she could not remember another disaster in which there was such a disconnect between what the government said and what reporters saw.
"It is part of our job to question them and to say, 'How can you say that, when we see something else with our own eyes?' " McGinnis said.
The tenor of the coverage stood in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the media won praise from many viewers for emphasizing national unity and tales of heroism.
"This story is in many ways much, much more complicated than 9/11," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "In some ways it's harder to coverâ€¦. The situation is still unfolding days later, so the frustration level is rising, not calming."
The turning point in the Katrina coverage came Thursday, when authorities stopped evacuating refugees from the squalid Superdome in New Orleans because of reports of shots fired at rescuers, Rosenstiel said. Journalists found it difficult to accept official explanations of why the extensive relief promised by the government had not reached refugees.
"The [Bush] administration threw the head of FEMA out there to the lion's den" to answer reporters' questions, Rosenstiel said.
Indeed, Koppel's grilling of FEMA's Brown proved pivotal to many viewers, who burned up blogs and online discussion with analyses of the exchange.
"Thank God Koppel is there to ask the common sense questions," a poster wrote at Americablog. "Kudos to Koppel for standing up to the White House spin," wrote Matthew Gross on his blog Deride and Conquer.
By midday Friday, the tone of the coverage seemed to be shifting. As troops began delivering food and water and President Bush toured the Gulf Coast region, CNN blared the headline "Help at Last" on its website.
But CNN.com also offered transcripts documenting differences in the official version and the "in-the-trenches version" of events, under the headline: "The big disconnect on New Orleans."
Some conservative commentators have accused the media of using the disaster as an opportunity to attack Bush.
"The only thing they can do is finger point, blame President Bush, rather than directing their concerns and energies constructively toward solving the problem," radio host Rush Limbaugh told listeners Thursday morning.
On Friday, the watchdog group Accuracy in Media criticized MSNBC for running an on-screen clock ticking the time passed since Katrina struck.
"MSNBC has made it quite clear that the purpose of this ticking clock is to try to blame the Bush administration for an alleged slow response," said AIM editor Cliff Kincaid.
Some politicization is to be expected, Rosenstiel said, adding that the size of the disaster was mitigating the divisiveness.
"This event is too big to fall along traditional political fault lines," Rosenstiel said. "This is a transcendent news story."
Times staff writer Matea Gold and special correspondent Allan M. Jalon contributed to this report.