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Broadcasting The Disconnect

Television coverage of Hurricane Katrina


Relentless TV exposure of government bullshit in the face of human suffering magnifies the gulf between the people and the Bush administration. CNN anchor Anderson Cooper: "It's that people are dying. I mean there are people dying. They're drowning to death and they drown in their living rooms and their bodies are rotting where they drowned and there are corpses in the street being eaten by rats and this is the United States of America."

What's your most vivid memory of last week's television coverage of the hurricane? Was it, by any chance, various government officials proclaiming that rescue efforts were proceeding heroically, while you were positive you'd just seen hours of footage of unspeakable tragedy in a wet and filthy war zone full of unrescued, ignored and desperate people?

Did you happen to catch the distraught eldery man telling a weeping reporter how his wife was swept away before his eyes: "She gone. She say I couldn't hold on to her anymore and to take care the kids and grandkids ... I'm lost."

President Bush: "We got a lot of rebuilding to do. The good news is (and it's hard for someone to see it now) but out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast ... out of the rubble of Trent Lott's house--the guy lost his entire house--there's going to be a fantastic house. I look forward to sitting on the porch."

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta: "It's gruesome. It is one of the most unbelievable situations I have seen as a doctor, certainly as a journalist as well. There is no electricity. There is no water. There's over 200 patients still here remaining ... We found our way in through a chopper and had to land at a landing strip and then take a boat. And it is exactly where the boat was traveling where the snipers opened fire yesterday, halting all the evacuations."

FEMA Director Mike Brown: "I've just learned today that we are in the process of completing the evacuations of the hospitals, that those are going very well."

Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff: "Now, of course, a critical element of what we're doing is the process of evacuation and securing New Orleans and other areas that are afflicted. And here the Department of Defense has performed magnificently, as has the National Guard, in bringing enormous resources and capabilities to bear in the areas that are now suffering."

Phyllis Petrich, tourist stranded in New Orleans: "They are invisible. We have no idea where they are. We hear bits and pieces that the National Guard is around, but where? We have not seen them. We have not seen FEMA officials. We have seen no one."

On Friday, a CNN reporter on an overpass stood in front of a body covered by a sheet, and reverently told of how the dead man was lovingly covered by a stranger passing by, ending his report with " ... this man quietly died, and New Orleans is dying along with him." FEMA Director Brown: "Considering the dire circumstances we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well."

When do you last remember television anchors shouting accusations at government officials? Or field reporters responding to horrific stories by bursting into tears? Until Katrina, had we ever seen a reporter drop his microphone while on camera in order to plunge into the water behind him to pull out a drowning man? Had we ever heard the mayor of a major city cursing at his federal government in the plainest possible language--"Don't tell me 40,000 troops are coming here. They're NOT here!"

The disconnect between what government officials were saying and the reality we saw on television was raw and painful. For television news, it was as if the national ban on straight talk and visible emotion was suddenly lifted. Many reporters dropped the premise of cool, detached, "balanced" coverage and were openly outraged at the smugly self-congratulatory government officials using vague, bureaucratic language to make blatantly false statements about the situation. Government was "performing magnificently?" And I am the Queen of Slobbovia. Go to New Orleans and float your 90-year-old mother on a raft in water full of shit and snakes only to get her to a refuse-piled front porch somewhere. Magnificent, isn't it?

Those same officials who fanned the flames of the blame game by their continuing refusal to get a grip on reality and to speak earnestly about it, then had the gall to start mewling about, "This is not the time for blame." Of course, this technique is old news, but what's new is that the first week of TV coverage of the hurricane seemed to place its importance under a gigantic magnifying glass. In a super-saturated, endlessly intense news cycle, we saw the Great Disconnect presented in multiple ways, from multiple sources, with a high level of repetition. That's the essence of effective advertising, and this time the product was heightened awareness of government bullshit.

It's been fascinating to take note of the complete absence of Vice President Dick Cheney anywhere connected with the hurricane; to hear Republican friends speak of their disgust at FEMA, Homeland Security and--gasp--Bush; to notice that Bush supporters in Washington or anywhere aren't holding press conferences defending his handling of the situation. All of these things have been made clear by the media, covered in-depth by newspapers in particular, and showcased for the masses on television. But newspapers can't show the animation of facial expression and body language of the exhausted and desperate victims of the hurricane, or those of obfuscating government spokespeople weasling around the ugly truth: They blew it, and thousands died.

In a country where 59 percent of adults watch their local news every day, and almost as many watch the nightly network news as well, television news is clearly a dominant force in shaping public opinion. (Only 42 percent of Americans report that they read a newspaper "yesterday.") That's a lot of people who saw the government saying essentially to the suffering: Just stand motionless until we can get to you. Americans are aware that strategic media communication is crucial to any campaign and TV coverage of Katrina premiered as one gigantic, unscripted episode of The Real World--this time for real people. What we saw was unprocessed, often live video instead of the carefully-edited footage of the nightly news. The Bush administration's usual tight control over The Message was drowned by a flood.

In the fullness of time, we will hear analysis of what did and didn't happen and who is at fault for this or that piece of the puzzle. Expect to see comparisons between federal hurricane response in Florida, that politically crucial state, and Mississippi, where poor Democrats dominate.

Without the scrutiny of the flood-zone TV cameras and the All-Katrina, All-The-Time lineup of network and cable news shows, who knows what our lasting impression would be? After all, we've been in Iraq for years now, and the level of outraged criticism of the war by the news media has not yet reached that which the Katrina bungle has already achieved. It's hard to imagine that television's magnification of the Great Disconnect can be anything but bad for the Bush administration. For all the good he did, President Clinton's legacy is Monica Lewinsky. Bush's could have been his post 9-11 show of power, but it may be wiped out by his post-Katrina show of impotence. Perhaps that's the good that will come from this human tragedy.