Day By Day

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Brownie Bites Back and In the Process Provides Some Useful Perspective


Michael Brown, former FEMA Director, testified today in front of the Congressional Committee investigating the response to hurricane Katrina. [CNN video here] He pulled no punches, arguing that FEMA had instituted time-tested procedures that had worked well in other emergencies and laying primary blame on local and State officials in Louisiana who could not get their acts together and on an out-of-control media that seriously misrepresented the true situation that was unfolding along the Gulf Coast.

The WaPo reports:

Michael D. Brown, the ousted director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, appeared before a House panel this morning and blamed Louisiana officials for what he called a "dysfunctional" response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage on the Gulf Coast.

Brown also strongly defended himself against what he said were "false, defamatory statements" spread by the news media about his qualifications.


Brown acknowledged "a couple of specific mistakes I made." But in explaining them, he cast blame on the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, both Democrats. By contrast, Brown told the committee, FEMA's approach worked in Mississippi and Alabama, whose governors are both Republicans.

Of the disastrous flooding that stranded thousands for days in New Orleans, Brown said in prepared testimony, "The only variable was the state government officials involved."


The way FEMA works with state officials in disasters is "well established and works well," Brown said in emphatic tones in his opening statement, pointing his finger and shaking a clenched hand at lawmakers. "Unfortunately, this is the approach that FEMA had great difficulty in getting established in Louisiana."

Brown said one of his mistakes was that he "failed to set up regular briefings to the media" and instead "became tied" to television news shows in the morning and late at night. As for his second mistake, he said, "I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together. . . . I just couldn't pull that off."

All of these are valid points. FEMA has functioned well under Brown's direction in many other disaster situations where there was cooperation from state and local officials; responsibility for evacuation lies with the primary responders, State and local officials; the media did distort for dramatic effect what was going on in New Orleans, reporting rumors as fact; and the media piling on afterward was repugnant. So far there has been little inclination by either national politicians or the MSM to investigate these aspects of the case. It makes a better storyline, and is more politically useful to blame FEMA and the President. This is not to say that Dubya and Brown are without sin in this affair.

Partisan Clowning:

The article further notes:

Partisan positioning began even before Brown made his way past a gantlet of television cameras at the House Rayburn Office Building.
Of course, what do you expect from these clowns? Partisan positioning is what they do.

Read the whole article here.

Media Malfeasance:

MSNBC reports:

Brown blamed “a hysteric media” for compounding the crisis with what he said were unfounded reports of rapes and murders. He characterized blunt-spoken Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the military coordinator for the disaster, as “a bull in the China closet, God love him.”
Read it here.

There is a tacit admission in the MSM coverage of Gen. Honore's statements that they have in many cases been "stuck on stupid." They, however, are not eager to go beyond that point and to systematically examine the nature and dimensions of their distortion. In fact, many are in a celebratory mode and praise the new subjectivity as somehow more authentic than actually reporting facts. There are, however, a couple of notable exceptions to this general self-congratulation.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a devastating piece on the extent of misinformation broadcast on the MSM.

Nearly a month after the storm, officials have come up with no hard evidence to back up stories of murder, rape and other violence that supposedly happened among those who took shelter in those places. No matter how convincing the eye witness accounts, the bodies that back up their stories aren't there.

The toll, after careful inspection, is as follows: four dead in the Convention Center, one by violence: six dead in the Superdome, none by violence. While there were reports of 30 to 40 dead in the Convention Center and 10 to numerous in the Dome, the actual tally has to be given more credibility than unconfirmed reports by traumatized people. During the chaotic week that followed Hurricane Katrina, four confirmed murders took place in New Orleans, a number that's not at all surprising or even unusual for a city that expected to see as many as 200 homicides this year.

Bad things certainly happened. That many people jammed together with inadequate food, water, medicine and toilet facilities and a growing sense of abandonment and desperation suffered enormously. But they shouldn't also be maligned as lawless or even, to use Mayor Nagin's unfortunate word, animalistic.

Contrast [National Guard] Sgt. Lachney's comments with those of Superintendent Compass. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said that babies were being raped. Mayor Nagin said that hundreds of armed gang members were killing and raping people inside the Dome.

The people of Louisiana need solid information and credible leaders as we move toward recovery. Katrina inflicted a lot of damage on the truth, and that's just one more mess we need to clean up. [emphasias mine]

Read the whole thing here.

The LA Times builds on the Times-Picayune piece to document even more media malfeasance and its consequences. The piece notes,

a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a frenzied media [that] recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.
"[The Superdome] just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done...."
The media's explanation:

Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor....

The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each retelling.

How's that again? Exactly how did race play a part?

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss cited telephone breakdowns as a primary cause of reporting errors, but said the fact that most evacuees were poor African Americans also played a part.

"If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people," Amoss said, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."
Oh, I see. The reporters were bigoted. Of course those pictures that NBC showed at least a couple of thousand times of hysterical black faces outside the convention center helped to foster the idea that the place was a madhouse.

Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.

I'll say! To give the Times credit, they don't excuse themselves.

And, of course, local officials are also blamed.

Some of the hesitation that journalists might have had about using the more sordid reports from the evacuation centers probably fell away when New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.

Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.

Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.
Reporters are prisoners of their sources, I guess, and are incapable of exercising independent judgment, except of course when they are condemning the President.

And these reports were not without consequences.

The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone.... [R]eports of corpses at the Superdome filtered back to the facility via AM radio, undermining his struggle to keep morale up and maintain order.

Read the whole thing here.

It is clear that a great deal of what we thought we knew about what was going on during Katrina was due to a media fenzy fed by unprofessionalism on the part of media figures and by grotesque misrepresentations of fact by local officials and traumatized witnesses. The media should take a major hit here. Their claims to credibility have been blown out of the water. But they are fighting back.


Chris Matthews has an NBC reporter on testifying that at the Convention Center she actually saw one dead body and "heard stories" about terrible things going on inside. In other words, one dead body and rumors amounted to sufficient documentation for the wild stories she and her colleagues were reporting at the time. This is nonsense. I have no doubt that she accurately reported her subjective feelings as she covered the story, but as a media professional we should expect more out of her and her ilk than that. The MSM, contrary to their numerous assertions, did not cover itself with glory in the Katrina coverage. They did, however, provide lots of drama that critics of the administration find useful.

During Brown's testimony, FOXNews had media commentators speaking, all of whom agreed that Brown was being "mean" and was unfairly trying to shift blame onto the media. Faugh!

Chris Matthews has Dana Milbank, Howard Fineman, and Time's Mike Allen. They branded Brownie as "arrogant and defensive" "nasty and accusatory" [not a bad way to characterize their own reactions]. They shift focus away from media malfeasance and instead characterize his testimony as an indictment of Bush and Tom Ridge. They judge his appearance as a disaster for the White House. Double-faugh!!!

John Podhoretz has a more responsible reaction:

So we now have two major reports -- one on the New Orleans Times Picayune website and the other in the L.A. Times -- about the way in which the major media spread all sorts of hysteria about the conditions inside flooded New Orleans. How will this jibe with all the talk about how the media threw off its self-imposed shackles after 9/11 and found their critical and passionate voice yet again? Doubtless both will receive praise from the MSM itself -- the early reporters for their "commitment" and the later correctives for their honesty. For the rest of us, though, this is a moment for reflection. I think everyone was very credulous, willing to believe almost any story that was told, because we were seeing something we'd never seen before -- an American city under water, footage of uniformed cops actually looting stores in front of news cameras, and people confused and trapped in extremely unpleasant conditions. There can be no doubt that it was a nightmarish experience to have been stuck at the convention center, but it wasn't, as it turned out, a shooting gallery or a death sentence.

The unprecedented nature of the story as it was should have been enough for everybody. Instead, far too many people -- from cable-news folks to reporters to bloggers -- ended up retailing fiction as fact.

Read it here.

The Money Quote:

AP leads with Brown's summary statement:

"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional..."
and then lapses into incoherence, concluding:

In part of his testimony, Brown pumped his hand up and down for emphasis.

Read it here.

Brown's statement is seen as an attempt to excuse his performance, but in fact it is damning. The essential fact, made by Chris Dodd, was that nobody was willing to take charge and pull the various competing incompetents together in a common effort. Brown, as FEMA head, should have done that and he didn't. He relied on past procedures and deference to first responders and dithered when he should have acted decisively.That was his fatal mistake.

The same could be said regarding his boss, the current occupant of the Oval Office. He did not take the whole situation seriously enough fast enough, and in that particular he failed.

Remember, though, one of the major criticisms of Bush, reiterated time after time, was that he was out of touch -- how could he not know how bad things were when it was being reported by the major media? Well, maybe he knew better than they did just how things were in New Orleans.

No comments: