The natural disaster on the US Gulf Coast certainly put a national spotlight on the Bush administration’s haphazard and callous response to the storm’s aftermath. As the level of the devastation and the inadequacy of the federal response became apparent, the administration tried public self-congratulation (“Brownie you are doing a heck of a job”) and lies (as Bush told a TV morning show with a straight face, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees”), but for once the media didn’t seem to be buying.
Reporters bombarded viewers with devastating pictures of the hurricane’s human toll and could even be found aggressively questioning administration officials live on TV about prior warnings (issued by engineers consistently for at least four years before the hurricane struck) or pointing to the blatant racism that resulted in the Gulf Coast’s poor, largely black population’s abandonment to the ravages of nature.
This media response was not a foregone conclusion. Initial coverage was business-as-usual. The sport of reporters testing their wills against the hurricane, the shameful reference to most black survivors as “looters” and whites as “victims,” and uncritical repetition of administration spin were the predictable characteristics of early coverage.
But then something happened. First up was leading television anchor Ted Koppel, who ridiculed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown for claiming that four days after the hurricane destroyed the largest city in the region, New Orleans, and despite heavy television coverage of the situation, FEMA did not know that 30,000 people were trapped in the city’s indoor football stadium without proper sanitation, food, or security. “Don’t you guys watch television? Don’t you guys listen to the radio?”
Anderson Cooper, CNN’s cement-coiffed star anchor, came into his own in Louisiana. The normally suave anchor showed his outrage to politicians intent on mutual backslapping. “Excuse me, Senator, I’m sorry for interrupting— for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, — I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.”
Even Fox News, a channel that set itself up as the antidote to the “liberal mainstream media elite” (in truth, as ragingly partisan mouthpiece of the right wing of the Republican Party), was not left untouched.
Two of its usually politically reliable anchors, Shepard Smith and the infamous Geraldo Rivera, angrily clashed with their station’s anchors and producers in New York City for exaggerating and moralising about “looters”.
Progressive observers were thrilled. Katrina had exposed the true face of the Republican agenda - to gut essential government functions and abandon all social responsibility. The media had finally awoken and a new national conversation about race, poverty, taxes, and the role of the state was about to commence.
No such luck.
Already coverage has shifted, with American nationalism as the antidote to the contradictions inherent in this society: images of convoys of troops descending on the Gulf Coast, a kinder and gentle President Bush hugging victims, and the predictable talk-show menu of partisan debate. “America Rebuilds” or “America Recovers” reads the title above the ticker tape on the nightly news, the flag features prominently again, and scrutiny of the government’s non-response fades.
Other things will have to change for Katrina-style coverage to stick. At the level of the media, it will need to replace its reliance on the administration for information, and to stop confusing adequate official intervention with personal virtue (which is where much of the Katrina coverage ends up). But this is especially unlikely to happen in the absence of any kind of coherent political response from the left. Democrats have been happy to criticise the Bush Administration’s handling of Katrina, but none has stepped up with a compelling vision for the new “national conversation” of progressive dreams.
Sean Jacobs is The Media’s correspondent in New York.