For the first 120 hours after Hurricane Katrina, TV journalists were let off their leashes by their mogul owners, the result of a rare conjoining of flawless timing (summer’s biggest vacation week) and foulest tragedy (America’s worst natural disaster).
No one could have anticipated that, suddenly, TV’s two prettiest-boy anchors would be boldly and tearfully (CNN’s Anderson Cooper and FNC’s Shep Smith, to their immense credit) relating horror whenever and wherever they found it, no matter if the fault lay with Mother Nature or President Dubya. The impact was felt immediately.
The depth of their reporting, along with that of other TV newscasters who were similarly unashamed to show their outrage, bested almost anything written by the most talented and experienced newspaper reporters. And the rawness of that televised despair spurred a still-new generation of Internet blogs and Web magazines to abandon their potty-mouthed snarking for long enough to start snarling at the proliferation of government lies and lying liars who tell them. (Wonkette, Gawker, Boing Boing, Sploid, and TVNewser all deserve immense kudos. But it was Slate’s Jack Shafer, the best media critic in the business, who first asked why there was no mention of race or class in TV’s Katrina coverage, prompting CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to plow new ground with unprecedented candor: “You see these poor individuals... almost all of them are so poor, and so black...”) All of a sudden, broadcasters, and the Web media who shadow them, narrated disturbing images of the poor, the minority, the aged, the sick and the dead, and discussed complex issues like poverty, race, class, infirmity and ecology, that never make it on the air — in this Swift Boat/gay marriage/Michael Jackson media-sideshow era. So began a perfect storm of controversy.Contrary to the scripture so often quoted in these areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, the TV newscasters knew the truth, but the truth did not set them free. And the truth telling soon turned to backslapping. Lost amid all the self-congratulation by broadcasters once the crisis point had been passed was the fact that TV journalists went back to business-as-usual by the weekend. Their choke chains had been yanked by no-longer-inattentive parent-company bosses who, fearful of any FCC regulatory fallout from fingering Dubya for the FEMA fuckups, decided yet again to sacrifice community need for corporate greed.Now comes the real test of pathos vs. profit: whether the TV newscasters will spend the fresh reservoir of truth and trust earned with the public to challenge FEMA’s attempt to perpetrate a campaign of mass deception. That’s the only way to describe what Reuters says is the agency’s attempt to block the news media from photographing the dead — officials have readied 25,000 body bags — as they are recovered from flooded New Orleans. Yet again, as it did with the coffins coming home from the Iraqi War and its violent aftermath, the Bush administration wants to hide from the public the lethal consequences of its flawed programs and policies.Slate’s Shafer termed what happened during Katrina as “The Rebellion of the Talking Heads.” Now, they must rattle Bush’s cage but also battle their own bosses, who no doubt will seek to comply with every Dubya directive no matter how wrong and reprehensible. The TV newscasters have access to the microphones, and the moguls have licensed the airwaves. Why can’t Katrina’s dead have at least the last word, even if it’s just the sight of a body bag or coffin? Already, Katrina’s wake is being sanitized and spun into a web of deceit by the Bush administration and disseminated with the help of the Big Media boy’s club (see the New York Times’ story on how Karl Rove spent the weekend conjuring up ways to shift blame). Only CNN appears not to have thoroughly read the proverbial memo — at least not yet.
So, as early as Saturday, certainly by Sunday, inevitably by Monday, and no later than Tuesday, the images and issues were heavily weighted once again to the powerbrokers and the predictable. The angry black guys were gone and the lying white guys were back hogging all the TV airtime. So many Congressional Republicans lined up on air to denounce the “blame-Bush game” — all the while decrying the Louisiana Democrats-in-charge — that it could have been conga night at the Chevy Chase Country Club.
And the attitudes of some TV personalities did a dramatic 180.At MSNBC, right-winger Joe Scarborough had exorcised his newfound empathy and once again embraced the dark side of his personality. For a few days, he’d looked genuinely disgusted by the death and destruction that went unrelieved around him in Biloxi, even daring to demand answers from Bush on down. But Scarborough was back to his left-baiting self within short order.Inside FNC’s studio, conservative crank Sean Hannity had been rendered somewhat speechless by the tragedy. Yet by Friday, he was back in full voice, barking at Geraldo Rivera (who was days late arriving in New Orleans to start scooping up starving babies) and Shep Smith (who was still staking out that I-10 bridge and sympathizing with its thousands of refugees) to keep “perspective.” The Mississippi-bred Smith boomed back in his baritone, “This is perspective!”FNC’s Bill O’Reilly, who spent last month verbally abusing the grieving mother of a dead Iraqi war soldier, then whiled away the early days of Katrina’s aftermath giving lip to New Orleans’ looters and shooters and then basically blamed the hurricane’s poorest victims for expecting any government help at all. “First, the huge, bureaucratic government will never be able to protect you. If you rely on government for anything, anything, you’re going to be disappointed, no matter who the president is,” he scolded. And, “If you don’t get educated, if you don’t develop a skill, and force yourself to work hard, you’ll most likely be poor. And sooner or later, you’ll be standing on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help.“Chances are that help will not be quick in coming.” By the weekend, FNC downplayed the dismal and played up the hopeful, alternating its “things are going great” mantra with laundry lists of arriving military hardware, division transfers and other boots-on-the-ground matters.Contrast that with CNN, not just the only network to report nearly 24/7 while FNC and MSNBC went into snooze mode with recycled shows, but also the only network, both on air and on its Web site, to compare and contrast the wildly contradictory statements by federal, state and local officials, sometimes within hours, but often within minutes of each other. The candor paid off strategically for CNN, which regained some of the ratings it had lost to FNC. It was CNN, for instance, that posted the first full transcript of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s profanity- and passion-filled Sept. 2 interview on local radio. It was also CNN that exposed the gruesome nature of conditions at the Superdome, the Convention Center, and the hospital corridors.A heart-wrenching online blog was kept by CNN staffers, while on air, Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, and Tom Foreman all held officials’ feet to the fire, from Bush on down. Cooper’s best moment came when, fed up with Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s blatant brownnosing of fellow officials, he fired back that it was hard to hear politicians thanking each other when rats were gnawing dead bodies in the streets. (Nominating Cooper for “Secretary of Take No Shit,” Wonkette.com congratulated: “We were sort of waiting for an anchor to go native, and Cooper does it in the best possible way.”) CNN’s resident curmudgeon, Jack Cafferty, expectedly opined that he’d never seen anything as “bungled” as the Katrina aid operation. Even CNN’s eye-candy anchors went from saccharine to sarcastic in the bat of an eyelash.Daryn Kagan described as “odd” that “the president [was] finally making it to the Gulf Coast after five days and then spending a big chunk of time — when he could be out seeing the damage — getting a briefing that, frankly, he could have gotten back at the White House.” Paula Zahn chided FEMA jackass Mike Brown (formerly head of the Arabian Horse Association): “Sir, you’re not telling me you just learned that the folks at the Convention Center didn’t have food and water until today, are you?” By comparison, CNN’s Headline News talk star Nancy Grace looked like an insensitive shrew when, on Monday night, she cut off CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick in the middle of her description of one nursing home that evacuated 35 people, and left 35 others to drown in their beds. “Oh,” was Grace’s only response, before stopping to play a video clip of the mayor. Of course, a day later, The New York Times fleshed out this story.But the fix still wasn’t in at CNN as late as Tuesday night, when political correspondent Ed Henry was given expanded air time to report on that closed-door session between House members and Cabinet secretaries in charge of directing Katrina relief. Henry countered claims by House Majority Leader Tom Delay that local officials and not the feds were to blame, with the juicy nugget that a Republican congressman had stood up in that secret confab and screeched, “All of you deserve failing grades. The response was a disaster.”In contrast to CNN, NBC deserves an “F” for its Katrina about-face.
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It wasn’t enough that the network had the audacity to edit its news transcripts so its bosses wouldn’t look bad. It wasn’t enough that the network hardly let NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado show any grisly footage. It wasn’t just that the network edited out Kanye West’s “Bush doesn't care about blacks” rant (Mike Myers’ deer-caught-in-headlights expression was priceless) for the West Coast feed of its televised fund-raiser. It wasn’t just that inexplicable hire Rita Cosby looked ridiculous reporting from Aruba instead of New Orleans for the first few days of Katrina. It wasn’t just that MSNBC’s executive producer, Rick Kaplan, was put in charge of the network’s Katrina fund-raiser at the height of the crisis.
It wasn’t just that Meet the Press host Tim Russert cut off Jefferson Parrish’s Andre Broussard during one of TV’s most moving and memorable outpourings of emotion.
It wasn’t just that Russert, to fill up airtime, let Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour praise Bush’s response ad nauseum without once reading back his sharp criticism of the feds days earlier. It wasn’t just that Hardball’s hardbrained Chris Matthews chided viewers and guests alike not to talk about who’s to blame. (Unless you think it’s Blanco or Nagin. Interesting how Barbour’s state was also dehydrated and starving, but nobody on TV news blamed him, since he just happens to be a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.) It wasn’t just that Don Imus decried Dubya’s “disgusting performance” at the start of his MSNBC TV show (simulcast on the Viacom/CBS-owned Infinity radio network) and then turned over just 24 hours later, directing blame at Mayor Nagin. None of this is surprising since MSNBC is owned by NBC, which in turn is owned by General Electric, which let its network and cable news cheerlead the run-up to the Iraqi War without ever bothering to tell viewers it had billions in contracts pending.If the Big Media boys increasingly look like they’re doing everything possible to prop W’s presidency, they are. GE’s No. 1 and No. 2, Jeffrey Immelt and Bob Wright, are avowed Republicans, as are Viacom’s Sumner Redstone (CBS), Time-Warner’s Dick Parsons (CNN) and News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch (FNC).Supporting the Bush administration can be good for corporate coffers, in the form of government contracts, billion-dollar tax breaks and getting the feds to provide special security favors. (For more on this, see my previous story, “When Might Turns Right: Golly GE, Why Big Media Is Pro-Bush, http://www.laweekly.com/ink/04/45/deadline-finke.php) Meanwhile, the situation is about to get worse. Already, incoming Disney CEO Bob Iger has tried repeatedly to dismantle Nightline. And CBS chairman Les Moonves wants to reinvent TV news to be more like entertainment shows — as if it’s not that way already — hosted by even prettier people. Surely they can’t be counted on to go up against the Bush administration on the body-bagging issue. Forget Murdoch and Immelt, too. And Parsons is iffy at best.Unless the newscasters themselves keep rebelling and keep trying to show the truth, it won’t be long before TV news will be taken out in a coffin, too.
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