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 could have 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).
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.
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."
[Note: Make your own judgment; Johnny Dollar | http://homepage.mac.com/mkoldys/iblog/C168863457/E20050908164126/index.html has the video.]
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."
Spurned Aid and Sexual Harassment
I don't know about you, but the most infuriating thing about the Katrina aftermath has been the seemingly endless tales of aid that was spurned, whether from other cities, other states or other countries. Manpower, supplies, fuel, buses, relief workers, all lined up and raring to go, and yet blocked, or at least delayed, by stupid, meaningless red tape while people were suffering and dying. What, all the forms weren't filled out properly? It's enough to make you scream.
Rich Lowry | http://nationalreview.com/lowry/lowry200509090821.asp has more absurd examples:
"Among all the perils facing survivors in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- drowning, starvation, toxic waters, poisonous snakes -- sexual harassment had to be far down the list. But days after the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 1,400 firefighters from around the country who had volunteered to help in New Orleans sitting in a conference room in Atlanta undergoing eight hours of training that included a sexual-harassment class. All this before they were allowed even to go to the Gulf Coast area to give out fliers and FEMA's phone number.
"Hurricane Katrina has laid bare the peculiar perversities of the bureaucratic mind: its utter commitment to niggling rules, its inability to take risks, its failure to the think on the fly. Leadership matters, and in the disaster's initial days, it was hard to tell when FEMA head Michael Brown was doing more harm -- when he tried to do his job, or when he tried to explain on TV how he was doing his job. But at the end of the day, FEMA is a close cousin to your local DMV, which you would never want to trust with your life.
"In so much of the Katrina response, senselessness ruled the day. Post-9/11 regulations meant that FEMA couldn't put evacuees on flights at the New Orleans airport without security screening and federal air marshals on the flights. Apparently, the fear was that terrorists had positioned themselves in New Orleans prior to Katrina so they could pose as bedraggled evacuees, on the off chance an opportunity would arise for them to hijack a rescue plane. Since the power was down, the X-ray machines and metal detectors didn't work, and it was decided that manual searches would have to suffice. Don't forget to pat down the children!
"The president of Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans, has complained that FEMA turned away three Wal-Mart trailer trucks with water and kept the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Republican Sen. Trent Lott criticized FEMA for blocking thousands of trailers sitting in Atlanta ready to head to the Mississippi coast. Surely, there were carefully crafted rules and procedures that accounted for these and other decisions to turn away aid. The only eventuality that such rules and procedures can't be written for is when someone should say, "to hell with all these rules and procedures."
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com is still on a tear over the debacle, citing this NYT | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/09/national/nationalspecial/09military.html excerpt:
"But just as important to the administration were worries about the message that would have been sent by a president ousting a Southern governor of another party from command of her National Guard, according to administration, Pentagon and Justice Department officials.
"'Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a president of the United States of one party had pre-emptively taken from the female governor of another party the command and control of her forces, unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result?' asked one senior administration official, who spoke anonymously because the talks were confidential.
"Blanco and Bush in my opinion deserve each other. I don't know why we're arguing which of them is to blame more. We should be furious at both. They were worried about partisan politics and how things might be 'perceived' if they acted to respond to what was by then obviously a monumental crisis. Then there's this caveat in the anonymous quote: 'unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result.'
"Wasn't that completely clear to many at that point? The first responders were overwhelmed and these politicians were worrying about gender issues and partisan politics? Given the fact that thousands of lives were at stake, 'perception' is not or surely should not be an issue. Nor should petty fights over jurisdiction or legal wrangling. Nor should the relative incompetence of governor Blanco. If she was incompetent, then that's all the more reason for Bush to have over-ruled her. The dead and dying in this country deserved better than this. So much better. And ultimately, with a disaster of this magnitude, it is up to the president to deliver that. He failed. There's no getting around it. He failed. In the most basic task required of him."
In case you missed it, here's that Time | http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1103003,00.html report on Michael Brown's enhanced resume:
"Before joining FEMA, his only previous stint in emergency management, according to his bio posted on FEMA's website, was 'serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight.' The White House press release from 2001 stated that Brown worked for the city of Edmond, Okla., from 1975 to 1978 'overseeing the emergency services division.' In fact, according to Claudia Deakins, head of public relations for the city of Edmond, Brown was an 'assistant to the city manager' from 1977 to 1980, not a manager himself, and had no authority over other employees. 'The assistant is more like an intern,' she told TIME."
Got a few hours to read the big tick-tocks on how the disaster unfolded? Here are the big takeouts in the Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0509110433sep11,1,7622822.story?coll=chi-news-hed xx, Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/weather/articles/2005/09/11/chronology_of_errors_how_a_disaster_spread/, xx Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-plan11sep11,0,2153804.story?coll=la-home-headlines, New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/09/11/national/nationalspecial/11response.html?hp&ex=1126497600&en=ce371f0e0587100b&ei=5094&partner=homepage, Phiadelphia Inquirer | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/local/12611879.htm and Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/10/AR2005091001529.html. The Newsweek | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9287434/site/newsweek/ vversion is headlined "How Bush Blew It." Time | http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1103525,00.html's cover piece is titled "System Failure." U.S. News | http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/050919/19evacuees.htm goes with "Lots of Blame."
And don't forget the could-it-happen-here? stories, all of which conclude that mass evacuation would be a mess. The Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/weather/articles/2005/09/12/mass_reworks_disaster_plan/, Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0509110296sep11,1,2440658.story?coll=chi-news-hed, New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/11/weekinreview/11robe.html and Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/10/AR2005091001114.html all weigh in.
In American Prospect, Terence Samuel | http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=10233 writes about the forgotten folks:
"The truth about Katrina and New Orleans is that the crippling lack of options that caused people to stay and die are a function of poverty that is ingrained in the fabric of many American lives. Nearly a third of the families, and nearly half the children, in New Orleans live in poverty. Louisiana is 49th in national poverty rates, just ahead of Mississippi and just behind Alabama. Katrina, in a manner of speaking, chose poor targets.
"And while the catastrophe and the worldwide media attention it generated served up shocking new images, they did not produce any new truths.
"Poor people get stuck all the time. They get trapped in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, in bad schools, in deadly neighborhoods, in the Superdome. Many are permanently locked out of the myth that is the American dream. The sensibilities that led the president to say they 'are not refugees but Americans' are exactly the same as those that led someone I know to say, 'The pictures look like Port-au-Prince.'
"But that is mythmaking of the highest order. The misery that washed up in Katrina's wake is the daily reality of lives stripped down to the basics and thrown into high relief. And deep inside we know it how wrong that is. If we didn't have consciences, New Orleans would be less disturbing."
The flooded city continues to be a difficult assignment for reporters, with National Guardsmen and others drawing guns and blocking pictures. A New Orleans police officer last week erased some shots of an arrest taken by a Washington Post photographer.
Here's an account by Peter Fimrite | http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/09/09/MNGIJEKPNJ1.DTL of the San Francisco Chronicle:
"I did not actually count the number of automatic weapons pointed at me, but there were at least five, and I was certain they were all locked and loaded, or whatever that military phrase is signifying that a gun is ready to blow a hole in somebody.
" 'Step out!' commanded the black-helmeted man in the middle of what appeared to be a tactical formation. He was pointing a laser-like flashlight attached to his machine gun at me.
"I must have been quite a sight alone out there on the darkened New Orleans street wearing a headlamp and holding a cell phone at an odd right angle, the only way I could get it to work. I had just been placed on hold.
" 'I'm a journalist working for The San Francisco Chronicle,' I said quickly, trying to remain calm. 'I'm out here because the signal . . . '
" 'Step out here!' he interrupted, and his tone suggested that the consequences for not stepping out into the street would be dire. I stepped out."
How bad are things for Bush? Pollster John Zogby | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-zobgy/bush-still-beats-kerry-w_b_7047.html, blogging at the Huffington Post, says:
"In our new poll, every president since Carter defeats Bush. But Kerry still loses to Bush by one point. What am I missing here?"