THE MEDIA GETS ITS BARK BACK
The nation’s mainstream media has had a rough couple of years. They had been battered into near submission by a tight-lipped and contemptuous Bush administration that created its own phony news vehicles to circumvent them. The press’s dismal failure to scrutinize the White House’s faulty WMD rationale for going to war in Iraq has already elicited mea culpas from outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post.
And yet, what appeared to start out as another overhyped TV story about extreme weather has turned into one of journalism’s finest moments in recent memory. Down in the hell of New Orleans — where reporters risked life and limb and were literally shocked by what they saw — they finally found the courage to believe their own eyes. CNN’s usually mild-mannered morning anchor Soledad O’Brien roasted FEMA director Mike Brown, who claimed not to know of the despair at New Orleans’s Morial Convention Center until he heard news reports.
"How is it possible we’re getting better intel than you’re getting?" O’Brien snapped. "I don’t understand how FEMA cannot have this information.... In Banda Aceh in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck."
During Bush’s photo-op visit to the region last week, he ran into the kind of questioning that explains why he rarely holds news conferences. "There are a lot of people wondering why you weren’t fixing the problems yesterday or the day before and why the richest country on earth can’t get food and water to those people that need it," one questioner asserted, leaving the president to say that on the one hand he was "satisfied with the response," but on the other that he was "not satisfied with all the results."
In the days to come, tougher questions will be asked as journalists switch from chronicling the scope of the disaster to piecing together how it happened. (The new issue of Newsweek describes a "strange paralysis" that set in at the White House, which wasted time in lengthy debates over "who was in charge.") Even more important than the answers they find is the fact that journalists now smell blood in the waters of Bush’s troubled second term.
"This is different" than 9/11, said USA Today’s Susan Page on the Fox News Sunday show. "People will be more willing to criticize him. I think this [the Katrina fallout] takes over the rest of the administration."
Now reportedly in the hands of Karl Rove, White House efforts at damage control will likely take several forms. One will include a compassion campaign, a smoother version of his father’s infamous "Message: I care," theme from the 1992 election. The other will feature surrogates, who will deflect blame onto other officials — most likely local and regional ones. Any serious postmortem is likely to find fatal shortcomings at all levels of government, including state and city. But Bush himself will have to face several layers of damning questions in the aftermath of Katrina.
The first concerns his belated and inappropriate response to the events unfolding on every television screen last week. Bush’s remarks on ABC’s Good Morning America that "I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," have already come back to haunt him.... His first journey to the area, during which he uttered the immortal words, "Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job," about the largely clueless FEMA director, struck the wrong emotional chord and was viewed as a public-relations failure.
The administration will be asked to explain its failure to heed dire warnings about New Orleans and its refusal to allocate funds to protect against the kind of havoc wrought by Katrina. That will trigger even larger debates about Bush’s priorities and his decision to pour human and financial resources into a war in Iraq that is losing the support of the American people. And finally, Katrina raises legitimate questions about the administration’s ability to protect us from and react to a terrorist attack, the linchpin of the Bush presidency.
"As a test of the homeland-security system, this was a failure," declared former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the many critics of the government’s response to Katrina to have emerged from the right flank of the political spectrum.
Once the bodies are found and buried, expect some high-profile stagecraft in Washington. Noisy congressional hearings seem very likely. Despite this White House’s preference for loyalty over competence, someone’s head is likely to roll, with FEMA chief Brown’s the most obvious candidate. And Bush’s next decision on how to fill the new Supreme Court vacancy will have to also take into account the post-Katrina political calculus.
Even before the fallout from the storm, the American public was souring on Bush’s stewardship. A late-August Gallup survey found 52 percent of the respondents critical of his handling of foreign affairs; 59 percent disapproving of the situation in Iraq; 60 percent saying he is doing a bad job on the economy; and 76 percent upset with his handling of rising gas prices. Until now, he had somehow managed to remain largely unaccountable for those problems. But Katrina may well prove to be the tipping point.
"I think he’s really undermined his credibility at this point, and it really saddles him with the kind of problems that Johnson and Nixon faced," historian Robert Dallek, referring to two presidents who suffered disastrous second terms, told the New York Times.
Thanks to the forces unleashed and exposed by a hurricane’s fury — a torrent of bipartisan criticism, a newly emboldened media, and the ugly truth about race and class in this country — Bush will finally have to pay the overdue bill for a legacy of failed policies and costly mistakes.
Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at email@example.com 1 page 2
Issue Date: September 9 - 15, 2005
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