Beware the Words ‘I’m From the Media, And I’m Here to Help’

Posted September 7, 2005 at 4:43pm

I have lots of friends in the national media, and I value their intelligence, dedication and integrity, as well as the important stories that they’ve broken. But I’ve had it with the way the media as a whole — and television in particular — has handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Too many journalists have gone from asking questions to delivering lectures.

I’m particularly tired of the finger-pointing that quickly follows every tragedy. Journalists love the blame game, because it makes for good television or because it allows them to feel as if they are successfully playing their part as defenders of the public interest. [IMGCAP(1)]

Few, if any, in the national media spent much time six months ago talking about federal spending on New Orleans’ levees. But they are all over the story now. Once again, reporters are fighting the last war. It’s a lot easier than planning for the next one.

Unlike government officials, journalists don’t have to be concerned about costs and priorities, about trade-offs or about what their constituents think — at least until a problem occurs. Then they can jump on decisionmakers, deriding them for their ineptness.

But where were those journalists before disaster hit, when the story didn’t seem very compelling? And even if a reporter or a TV anchor cared six months ago, would most Americans really have been willing to spend millions of dollars to upgrade New Orleans’ levees with no imminent threat in sight?

In the case of the New Orleans flood, the period between the tragedy and the finger-pointing was incredibly short. The rescue operation was still in its early stages when too many in the media started looking for government officials, particularly federal government officials, to blame.

Most of us in the media have never managed a truly large-scale business or a major rescue operation, let alone planned for or overseen the response to a disaster of historic proportions. Few know all of the contingencies that must be considered and all of the problems that can arise following a natural disaster. I certainly don’t.

But that doesn’t stop some in the media from voicing indignance and outrage about alleged failures of President Bush and his administration, and calling for heads to roll even before a formal, measured assessment of the emergency operations has begun.

Journalists are great with a computer keyboard and thesaurus, and we even know when to use a semi-colon. But we rarely, actually make difficult decisions affecting people’s lives. What we do is stand back, far from the responsibilities that others shoulder, and complain and criticize.

“Why wasn’t this or that done?” journalists, TV hosts and cranky old men on TV and talk radio asked, first rhetorically and then in commentaries thinly veiled as questions aimed at government officials just days after the levees collapsed.

Their clear implication was that federal, state and local officials didn’t care about those affected by the disaster, or that the officials were idiots for not taking a certain action or for not planning for a specific contingency. Apparently, it’s only journalists who really have the public’s interest at heart. Everyone else is lazy or self-satisfied.

Let me state the obvious: The damage from Katrina was extensive, and the damage and loss of life from the flooding of New Orleans was mind-boggling.

Residents waited too long for help, whether that assistance involved rescuing them from their roofs, providing them with food, clothing and shelter, or establishing law and order. I’m sure there is plenty of blame to go around, from local officials in New Orleans to state and federal government officials.

The dirty little secret that members of the electronic and print media won’t tell you is that it is in their interest to hype the crisis and to fuel controversies, and that’s exactly what they have done in the past week.

Cable TV’s ratings soared after the hurricane and flood, as viewers around the country showed a considerable appetite for around-the-clock coverage of the disaster. Tragedy always boosts ratings, of course, for the same reasons people slow down to look at a car wreck.

The cable TV networks and their anchors, producers and reporters have an incentive to keep the excitement coming, to keep running that b-roll of displaced elderly and babies at the Convention Center, and of people crying for help on roofs and bridges. And so that’s what they’ve done for the past 10 days.

I’m not suggesting that journalists somehow should downplay the effects of the tragedy. Cover it, but put it in some context.

The reality of today’s media is that executives, producers, editors and reporters all have a strong incentive to create — or at least feed — controversy by second-guessing officials. And they have an incentive to show people crying or screaming for help, complaining about how the government has let them down. It’s good TV.

I’m certainly not indicting every journalist. ABC’s Dan Harris did a terrific piece two days ago in which he looked at the traditional responsibilities of various levels of government (local, state and federal) before and after a hurricane. It’s the kind of piece that educates and is necessary before we have a discussion about responsibility and changes in the way government plans.

We need more of that kind of journalism and fewer lectures from media know-it-alls.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.