What did we in the media talk about before we spent all our time talking about hurricanes? Before all the chatter was about Category 4 and Category 5 and levees and evacuations? Before we flooded the zone, to use Howell Raines's phrase, of Katrina and Rita and every storm in between?
Let me think real hard. There was the Cindy Sheehan business. Tax cuts. Intelligent design. Iraq. Hillary. John...Roberts, right? And some woman missing in Aruba. It all seems so...dry.
Now we cover Mother Nature, in all its fury, and people fleeing Mother, and politicians arguing about how to spend money to repair Mother's damage.
Journalists have become hurricane hounds, and everything else--especially if you watch cable--has been put on hold, sidelined, shelved or, to use a baseball term, rained out.
Think about all the beat folks. Financial reporters cover the effect on the economy, energy reporters on the oil supply, the social-policy reporters the debate over poverty and race, the real estate reporters the effect on housing, the sports reporters the relocation of the Saints and the Hornets. The blog reporters cover the role of the Internet. The NYT Food section even has a piece | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/21/dining/21cook.html about New Orleans chefs who are still cooking.
Meanwhile, some GOPers have finally gotten specific about spending cuts, although that doesn't mean any of the cutbacks will pass:
"Yesterday the Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 100 conservative House members, say they have compiled a package of proposed cuts that would save the federal government more than $139 billion next year," says the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/weather/articles/2005/09/22/gulf_coasts_rebuilding_bills_expose_a_gop_split/. "It calls for eliminating subsidies for public broadcasting and Amtrak, and for sharply limiting foreign aid, among a wide range of other proposals."
Pulling the plug on Amtrak? Congress wouldn't even let the rail service raise fares a few days ago.
"Even some of President Bush's most cherished priorities are coming under scrutiny. The committee wants to kill Bush's idea to send manned spacecraft to the moon and Mars and cut the 'Millennium Challenge Accounts' the president wants as rewards for nations that make strides toward economic and personal freedom.
"And a growing number of Republicans are asking for a one-year delay in implementing the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which would begin Jan. 1. The delay would save the federal government about $30 billion in 2006, money that some Republicans say would be better spent on rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast."
The New Republic's Jason Zengerle | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050919&s=zengerle092105 has some thoughts on who's spinning the numbers:
"Now it appears New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was wildly (and thankfully) off the mark when he estimated, in the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that his city's death toll might reach 10,000. For this error, he--and, to an even greater extent, the media that dutifully reported his estimate--have come under fire from the right.
"The erroneous 10,000 figure, in the eyes of some commentators, seems to be evidence that the media has exaggerated the extent of the Katrina disaster--and the importance of the Katrina story. Noting on Monday that the current death toll in New Orleans stood at 579, Cliff May crowed on National Review Online that the number was not only less than 10,000 but was also 'much less than the more than 35,000 killed by a heat wave in Europe two summers ago. You recall the debate that set off about European heartlessness, racism, and discrimination? No, neither do I.'
Meanwhile, conservative columnist Victor Davis Hanson declared: 'For all the media's efforts to turn the natural disaster of New Orleans into a racist nightmare, a death knell for one or the other political parties or an indictment of American culture at large, it was none of that at all. What we did endure instead were slick but poorly educated journalists, worried not about truth but about preempting their rivals with an ever-more-hysterical story, all in a fuzzy context of political correctness about race, the environment and the war.' And the influential conservative blog Powerline went even further in commenting on the incorrect death toll estimate, blustering: '[T]he MSM'--that's mainstream media in blogspeak--'was so busy pointing its finger at President Bush that it largely missed the magnitude and accomplishments of the federal relief.'
"This overweening desire to defend President Bush, of course, is what likely explains conservatives' attempts to transform understandable confusion over Katrina's death toll into a talking point in their brief against the media's coverage of the storm. After all, it's practically impossible to defend the Bush administration's response to the hurricane on the merits--not after the canning of Michael Brown and the president's own mea culpa (or, as close as he'll ever get to one). So blaming the media for exaggerating the extent of the crisis the storm precipitated is the only option the president's defenders are left with."
Jonah Goldberg | http://nationalreview.com/goldberg/goldberg200509210810.asp has the temerity to make fun of the coverage:
"The press was blindsided again. As Hurricane Rita barreled toward Key West, television news executives were unprepared to deal with the lamentable divide this storm would undoubtedly reveal between gay America and straight America.
"You'd think the media would have learned their lesson. After Katrina, the press corps waited a full two days after the storm hit before it was able to report that one of America's poorest and blackest cities was full of poor and black people. Surely, this time around the Fourth Estate would hit the ground running with up-to-the-minute exposes on the 'Other' Other America and trenchant-yet-lachrymose essays on What This Says About America, that one of America's zestiest gay resorts was left to twist in the wind.
"The questions raised by unlovely Rita are as painful as they are obvious. Will gays stay behind in disproportionate numbers in this disproportionately gay city? If so, Why? If gay marriage were legalized, could some of this disaster be avoided? Would George W. Bush have responded more quickly if the victims were just a tad less stylish? And, of course: Will the federal government help keep Key West festive?...
"This all might sound a bit absurd, but this isn't far from where we are today."
Daniel Drezner | http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/002322.html, a disenchanted Bush supporter, posts a comment about recent criticism of the prez by other conservatives:
"Funny, these are the same guys who idolized him for the first five years of his presidency. What changed, all of a sudden? Certainly not Bush, he is still acting the same way he has his entire career.
"What's changed is that after five years of presidency, the elections are finally over. It is now safe to criticise Bush, because such criticism can't possibly matter any more - it can't affect his reelection chances.
"Forgive me if I don't perceive this as responsible conservatism. Responsibility would have been criticising him before it's too late to do anything about his weaknesses. Responsibility would have been getting Mike Brown out of there before Katrina hit. Responsibility would have been getting Rumsfeld out of there before Iraq was a total loss. What we're seeing now isn't just too little, too late --- it's *intentionally* too little, too late. The criticism was intentionally postponed until it no longer mattered."
What is about disasters that make public officials think they can openly scorn reporters? First it was Chertoff huffily refusing to answer a perfectly legitimate question about why he was sidelining Michael Brown (who would quit within days), and now National Review's Media Blog | http://media.nationalreview.com/ brings us this transcript:
"Male reporter: General Honore, we were told that Berman Stadium on the west bank would be another staging area. . . .
"Honore: Not to my knowledge. Again, the current place, I just told you one time, is the convention center. Once we complete the plan with the mayor, and is approved by the governor, then we'll start that in the next 12-24 hours. And we understand that there's a problem in getting communications out. That's where we need your help. But let's not confuse the questions with the answers. Buses at the convention center will move our citizens, for whom we have sworn that we will support and defend . . . and we'll move them on. Let's not get stuck on the last storm. You're asking last storm questions for people who are concerned about the future storm. Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight. And if you don't understand, maybe you'll confuse it to the people. That's why we like follow-up questions. But right now, it's the convention center, and move on.
"Male reporter: General, a little bit more about why that's happening this time, though, and did not have that last time. . . .
"Honore: You are stuck on stupid. I'm not going to answer that question. We are going to deal with Rita."
Pat Leahy has decided to vote for Roberts--Kerry and Kennedy, no surprise, are against--and that has given us a peek of the kind of pressure the Democrats are under from their left flank, as the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-092105roberts_lat,0,2414887.story?coll=la-home-headlines reports:
"Leahy's endorsement drew an immediate rebuke from People for the American Way, a liberal activist group whose president, Ralph G. Neas, said Leahy had 'eloquently made all the arguments against the confirmation of Judge Roberts, and then made a decision that contradicted his own compelling reasoning. His decision was inexplicable, and deeply disappointing.'
"Holding out the sort of threat that Roberts' critics have said they would apply to Democrats who supported the judge, he said that when Roberts, as chief justice, votes for decisions that erode or overturn court precedents protecting 'fundamental civil rights, women's rights, privacy, religious liberty, reproductive rights and environmental safeguards,' Leahy's support for him would make the senator 'complicit in those rulings, and in the retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties.'"
Former Democratic Hill staffer David Sirota | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-sirota/on-roberts-who-is-more-p_b_7657.html rips the media for . . . not agreeing with him that John Roberts is a menace to society:
"I can't decide who is more pathetic: the mainstream media, or unnamed D.C. strategists/aides/beltway-gliterrati-types and the Democratic Party they've run into the ground? The former's reporting on some of the most important issues has become so silly and divorced from reality that you'd think you were reading/hearing/watching something that was deliberately fiction. The latter regularly spews such inane drivel that you'd think the Democratic Party was actually trying to lose elections and embarrass itself
"In trying to answer the 'who is more pathetic?' question, we can look no further than the to-do over Supreme Court nominee John Roberts for clues. The media is breathlessly discussing how Democrats - especially 2008 presidential hopefuls - supposedly have a big choice to make in their vote on Roberts: whether to vote no to supposedly pander to the Democratic base, or vote yes and supposedly play to 'centrist' voters. Here's the third-grade-level question that the Ivy Leaguers in the Beltway media can't seem to even fathom, much less consider: what is 'appealing' to centrists about voting for a guy as extreme as John Roberts?
"The fact is, there are very serious questions surrounding Roberts record that go well-beyond just the fact that we are about to make a guy who has served less than 3 years on the bench the most important judge in America. For instance, he has very questionable and extreme positions on (among others) privacy, civil rights, and women's rights. . . .
"Then again, you might not know about Roberts' extreme positions both because of the sad state of American journalism, and the sad state of the Democratic Party. Both of these big players have largely given Roberts a pass on these questions and billed him as a 'moderate' because he is a smooth-talking, upper-class-emanating, Chamber of Commerce-oozing corporate lawyer from the Washington, D.C. suburbs, who really does have such a nice smile and such a gosh darn nice all-American family and boy is he just so smart and well-spoken . . . have you vomited yet? Probably."
I do feel like retching over the media's refusal to wise up and reflect Sirota's viewpoint.
Many people say that Slate's Jack Shafer | http://slate.msn.com/id/2126636/?nav=tap3 has a thing about phony trend stories, based on the many pieces he has written in a growing effort to knock them down. Kind of like he does with this NYT | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/national/20women.html?incamp=article_popular_1 front-pager, objecting "when a reporter pours a whole jug of weasel-words into a piece, as Louise Story does on Page One of Tuesday's New York Times in 'Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,' she needlessly exposes one of the trade's best-kept secrets for all to see. She deserves a week in the stockades. And her editor deserves a month.
"Story uses the particularly useful weasel-word 'many' 12 times -- including once in the headline -- to illustrate the emerging trend of Ivy League-class women who attend top schools but have no intention of assuming the careers they prepared for.
"She informs readers that 'many of these women' being groomed for the occupational elite 'say that is not what they want.' She repeats the weasel-word three more times in the next two paragraphs and returns to it whenever she needs to express impressive quantity but has no real numbers. She writes:
"Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment."
The many critics of this article, some say, include new CBS blogger Vaughn Ververs | http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2005/09/21/publiceye/entry870887.shtml:
"There are so many holes and oddities in this story it's hard to know where to start, so I'll start close to home. At home, in fact. My wife is both an Ivy League grad and a part-time worker (though you wouldn't know it from the hours she works). Was that Brown degree wasted because she gives her corporate masters three or four days a week, not five? Any objective observer would say that she contributes more to society than I do, though I work full-time. I coach soccer and drive car pool...
"And frankly, the same is true of educated mothers who don't work. The idea that their educations are being wasted is really too ludicrous to argue with. Isn't parenting somewhat important? Isn't education a good in itself, with all kinds of intangible social utility? The classic idea of liberal arts is not education for liberals, but education that is necessary for a free people. I'm writing about this in a journalism blog, however, because the story actually never shows there is any real debate about this alleged controversy -- no real person in the story argues that the Ivies should serve only worker bees. One Harvard dean waxes vaguely philosophic about it. Yet the author ponders possible solutions, like admissions screening. Perhaps the author was simply trying to dress up a trend story by inventing a non-existent controversy. Or maybe there was some other agenda."
The New York Times, Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News are all cutting jobs, which is depressing to Philly alum and American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder | http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id=3964:
"It's just so sad.
"Another round of punishing cuts at the Philadelphia Inquirer will leave the paper with 75 fewer newsroom staffers. That will bring the total to 425 -- about 300 fewer than it had in 1989, according to the Newspaper Guild.
"The paper's Rome bureau will be axed. In the 1990s the paper had four foreign bureaus. Now it will have one.
"The relentless dismantling of the once-great Inquirer has been one of journalism's truly distressing stories of the last decade. The whatever-it-takes ethos of the Pulitzer-machine years is a distant memory...
"Why the slash-and-burn? Are the Philly papers on the verge of bankruptcy?
"Not so much. Joe Natoli, head of the entity that publishes the papers, says their profits are in the 'low double digits,' a margin most industries would kill for. In 1995, in fact, that's where the margins were of Knight Ridder, McClatchy and Dow Jones (the New York Times Co. was in single digits at 9.6 percent). But in today's Wall Street-dominated newspaper world, that's chump change."