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Hearings Tempest Downgraded to Topical Storm

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

Hurricane Katrina is having a gale-force impact on the John Roberts confirmation hearings.

When the Senate hearings begin this morning, the cable news networks plan to dip in and out after carrying some opening statements. The far more dramatic pictures of flood-ravaged New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., will continue to dominate the on-air coverage, and the uproar over the administration's handling of the disaster has greatly eclipsed Roberts in the print media.

Had there been no hurricane, the battle over the next chief justice would be the media's top story instead of a sidebar. While PBS, Court TV and C-SPAN3 will carry the hearings live, arguments about strict constructionism and legal precedents will simply have trouble competing with a catastrophe that most likely killed thousands. Some newspapers last week led with the president's decision, after William Rehnquist's death, to name Roberts to succeed him instead of Sandra Day O'Connor, but that took a back seat to Katrina on the network newscasts and quickly faded.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the pro-administration Committee for Justice, says the diminished coverage is "a problem for the liberal groups and senators who want to turn this into a spectacle. . . . When the media have other serious things to focus their attention on, they tend to spend less time and less ink on the tit-for-tat, he said/she said elements that frequently accompany a confirmation hearing."

Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, says a lack of live cable coverage would be "extremely disappointing" but that "there has been considerable press coverage of the nomination in past months. . . . While public attention might be focused on other issues, the senators are very ready for these hearings." She also says her group is seeking alternatives by "speaking to bloggers on a daily basis."

Roberts has been treated well in journalistic accounts, says a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs. In the first 40 days after Roberts's nomination -- up until the hurricane -- 69 percent of the evaluations of him on the network evening newscasts were positive. Roberts drew 57 percent positive evaluations in the New York Times. He has fared considerably better than Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas did in their pre-hearing coverage, the group says.

A key factor in dampening coverage of the Roberts hearings is the apparent lack of suspense about the outcome. With most of the 55 Republican senators, and some Democratic ones, voicing support for the appellate judge, a media consensus formed early that he was a shoo-in. But even if the vote were a cliffhanger, the story would still have trouble competing with the worst natural disaster in American history.

Footnote : Sixty-five percent of those in a Pew Research Center poll say the media are doing an excellent or good job covering Katrina. Eighty-nine percent say television is a main source of news about the disaster, followed by newspapers (35 percent), the Internet (21) and radio (17). The TV breakdown is: CNN (31 percent), Fox News (22 percent), local news (19), ABC (14), NBC (12), MSNBC (9) and CBS (8).

Unreliable Source

The Washington Post, like many news organizations, says it is trying to crack down on the use of anonymous sources. But the paper allowed a "senior administration official" to spin the story of the slow response to Katrina -- with a claim that turned out to be false.

On Sept. 4, the paper cited the "senior Bush official" as saying that as of the day before, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco "still had not declared a state of emergency." As The Post noted in a correction, Blanco, a Democrat, had declared a state of emergency on Aug. 26.

Liberal bloggers have unloaded on The Post. Wrote Arianna Huffington: "Why were the Post reporters so willing to blindly accept the words of an administration official who obviously had a partisan agenda -- and to grant the official anonymity?"

Post National Editor Michael Abramowitz calls the incident "a bad mistake" that happened right on deadline. "We all feel bad about that," he says. "We should not have printed the information as background information, and it should have been checked. We fell down on the desk."

Spencer Hsu, the article's co-author, says he "tried to make clear that the source came from the administration, and that he was blaming the locals, which I believe our story made clear and broke ground in explaining by uncovering the National Guard dispute."

Should the paper identify the source who provided bad information? "We don't blow sources, period, especially if we don't have reason to believe the source in this case actually lied deliberately," Hsu says.

Rivera's Beef

Geraldo Rivera has been going ballistic against Alessandra Stanley since the New York Times television critic accused him of grandstanding in his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

In appearances with Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, Rivera last week called Stanley "Jayson Blair in a cocktail dress." He said that if her name was "Alexander," not Alessandra, he would go to the Times building and shout, "Come on down here, punk."

"Call the woman a punk and then blast her in the face. Perfect," O'Reilly said.

Stanley drew the flamboyant correspondent's ire by writing that he "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety."

But a review of the videotape shows no nudging or other physical contact by Rivera. At a nursing home, Rivera and a staffer are shown lifting the woman's wheelchair down an interior flight of stairs. Then one Air Force man takes the wheelchair and a second one comes into the picture, looking as though he is going to help carry the elderly woman down the outside stairs. The second Air Force man leaves the picture and Rivera reappears, helping the first airman carry the wheelchair outside as the camera rolled.

Stanley says only that she and her editors reviewed the tape and decided her description was accurate. Says Times Editor Bill Keller: "It was a semi-close call, in that the video does not literally show how Mr. Rivera insinuated himself between the wheelchair-bound storm victim and the Air Force rescuers who were waiting to carry her from the building. Whether Mr. Rivera gently edged the airman out of the way with an elbow (literally 'nudged'), or told him to step aside, or threw a body block, or just barged into an opening -- it's hard to tell, since it happened just off-camera. Frankly, given Mr. Rivera's behavior since Ms. Stanley's review appeared . . . Ms. Stanley would have been justified in assuming brute force. . . . Ms. Stanley's point was that Mr. Rivera was showboating."

Still, the tape shows no nudging, so the refusal to even run a clarification gives Rivera free rein to call the paper "arrogant."

Another Katrina Spat

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi got so annoyed at CNN anchor Kyra Phillips last week that she suggested Phillips join the White House staff.

Phillips pressed the California Democrat on her denunciations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's handing of Katrina, saying, "I think it's unfair that FEMA is just singled out" when "there are so many people responsible." Phillips then interrupted Pelosi to ask about past Army Corps of Engineers warnings (and corrected the congresswoman for mispronouncing her name), prompting Pelosi to say: "If you want to make a case for the White House, you should go on their payroll." Phillips said she was doing no such thing.

On Friday, Phillips told viewers that CNN has gotten hundreds of letters, pro and con, the most critical of which said: "Kyra is an unbelievably terrible journalist. . . . Journalists should be objective." She responded: "We're asking tough questions because you're asking tough questions, and we're going to continue to do that." Pelosi says through a spokeswoman that she objected to Phillips's "personal opinions."

Off the Hook

Local prosecutors have decided not to charge former Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede for illegally taping his telephone conversation with an ex-city official who then committed suicide, citing "the uniqueness of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Arthur Teele and his last conversation with a trusted friend."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company