Saturday, September 17, 2005

It's clear that we've reached something of a tipping point in terms of the media's coverage of Bush-- he is now fair game. You could see this today in the Times with a story not only about how FEMA continues to fuck-up things in New Orleans, but also a story on why the anthrax letter senders still haven't been caught. If you look at the piece carefully, you'll see all the sources are secondhand -- ex-FBI men, academics, a few political types-- yet the piece still declares the investigation at an utter standstill. I think even a few weeks ago, the Times would never have run a story like this. They would have waited for some FBI bigwig or Bush administration honcho to acknowledge the investigation was going nowhere, which, of course, would never have happened.

Liberals, at least my wife, are no doubt cheering at the media's change of heart, but I still think it's worth pointing out how arbitrary and hypocritical this turning of the tides is. New Orleans pointed up an utter failure on the part of the Bush administration to manage government apparatus, but anyone who covers Washington should have known about this by reading paul O'Neill's book from three years ago. He said at the time that the Bushies had completely politicized the political process so that the normal day-to-day management of government agencies was no longer taking place (Krugman thinks this is due to a right-wing aversion to government, but I think that gives Bush more credit than he's due. Every business he's ever run failed. The real cause here is simply ineptitude).

I also think that anyone even vaguely familiar with what happened in Iraq in the few weeks after we invaded would understand that this administration cannot deal with the small, niggling matters that are part and parcel of what government does. The place was chaos a few days after the invasion. So why did the media right then and there turn against Bush?

I think the answer is twofold -- first, in the case of New Orleans, reporters actually left the office. They witnessed first hand the devastation and their movement was unrestricted so they could see for their own eyes when the federal government failed the flood's survivors. In Iraq, reporters chose at first to be embedded with the troops and now that the country is in the midst of a violent civil war cannot go anywhere. I also think that the dispatches from Iraq were filtered, indirectly or directly, through the Washington bureaus which meant that any bad news coming in from Iraq was run by Bush administration flunkies. They in turn put their own spin on events, and even though the reporters on the ground in Iraq knew this was nothing but spin, the Washington reporters pulled rank. In the interests of getting the other side of the story, the bad news from Iraq was portrayed as just one possible interpretation of what was going on there. Thus-- and this is my key point-- it was the Washington press corps, whose daily traveling includes little more than going back and forth between their offices and the White House press secretary's office -- who got ultimate control of how the situation on the ground was depicted.

But my second explanation for why the tide has turned against Bush-- media narcism. It's sort of a truism in the media that Americans don't care about any news unless it happens in America, but I never thought for a moment this was also true of the members of the media. I always thought this was an utterly stupid maxim, which even if it was true, still didn't relieve the press of its obligation to report on international events (in fact, it made it even more of a moral imperative). Yet it's clear that far more weight and significance has been given to the deaths of Americans in New Orleans than those in Iraq. I never saw a single reporter express outrage at the government when Iraqis got blown up due to our decision to invade, yet utter inability to provide security afterwards. But I have seen reporters become flaming balls of indignation over the incompetence in New Orleans.

For that matter, why wasn't the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in southeast Asia grounds for turning on Bush? I understand it's harder to blame the devastation in Sri Lanka on the president, but where was the media's outrage over the failure of the world community to prevent what happened? Everything that is now being said about New Orleans could be said about the tsunami -- scientists have long said that region of the world was ill-prepared to deal with a major storm; everyone knew an early warning system for tsunamis was needed in Asia. Did not the Bush administration, in its role as leader of the world's only superpower, not have some kind of responsibility to protect Asia from a major tsunami? Not only was this question never asked. I have yet to see any stories in the press about the relief efforts over there. We have no idea if the Bushies followed through on all their promises of aid. It's like the tsunami never happened.


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