Monday, September 05, 2005

The press corps is outraged. They have seen, either in person or on the TV sets in their newsrooms, the images of New Orleans -- corpses floating along on flooded streets, the famed Historic Quarter overrun by rats, people stewing in their own feces, desperate for water and food and dying. Of course, none of these journalists is so naive to believe that this kind of horror doesn't ever happen, but this is America, we are told over again and again, it is not supposed to happen here.

Apparently, none of these reporters has ever visited an American prison, or a housing project, or taken even a cursory look at the statistics on racial and health inequities in this country. I heard on Washington Weekly the other night one of the pundits predicting New Orleans would trigger a national debate on just what kind of a country we wanted to be and whether we were any longer going to tolerate the kind of injustice that had lead to all those black people in the Big Easy being left behind while the whites escaped. She was very worked up, quite emotional so she really had no idea of how ignorant and idiotic she came across as. Every day in this country, you can walk by someone living in the most appalling conditions, yet I don't see that as ever having prompted the kind of dialogue she was talking about. The Washington Post just polled a few hundred Americans in the aftermath of Katrina. Just about three fourths said they were sure oil companies were taking advantage of the crisis to gouge the public, yet only half said there was nothing wrong with the government's response to the hurricane. So Katrina may prompt a national debate about the cost of oil (now basically the same as it was 30 years ago), but it hardly seems likely to do so about human suffering.

But one thing remains unchanged about our 'deeply moved' press corps -- they see this tale of immense human suffering as largely a political story. Almost from the moment the images of dead bodies began appearing on TV, everyone has been asking what the impact on the Bush administration's poll ratings would be. Not so long ago, it would have been the politicians, quietly and discreetly, who would be asking this question, but now it's done so clamorously and obnoxiously by the press, whose members then go on to provide answers that are little more than blithe speculation. Basically we have corpses rotting away in New Orleans while the members of the press sit in well air-conditioned studios ruminating on possible poll dips for the President.

Don't get me wrong here: there are plenty of reporters out in the field, risking their personal comfort, if not lives, to cover this story, and there is no doubt there is a political dimension of this nightmare worth considering. But the political dimension has come to dominate the coverage with endless numbers of stories talking about Bush facing the greatest crisis of his presidency and having to struggle to win back the confidence of the American public. I see absolutely no evidence that this is the case. Even if the polls do show some level of unhappiness with the administration's response to Katrina, there is no reason -- as of yet anyway -- to believe it will be long-lasting. If, for example, New Orleans is ridded of water in two months rather than the three months that is being predicted, that will lead to a victory march by Bush along the now dry streets of the city and all confidence in him, at least on this front, will be restored.

What I really can't understand is why a single breath of air is wasted talking about the political fallout of Katrina. The Times today had a story about all the finger-pointing now going on among politicians over who is to blame for the slow response to Katrina. It strikes me that this is the laziest kind of reporting -- rather than going out and investigating whether there was in fact a slow response and then, if there was one, trying to assess why, the article is just an extended he said/she said take on the controversy with almost no effort by the reporter to assess the truth behind any of these statements. As a result, the entire New srleanO tragedy gets reduced to a political issue -- who fucked up here is a function of who can spin the tragedy to their advantage not a function of who actually fucked up.

This whole category of political analysis reporting needs to be permanently abolished and our so-called pundits shifted into to the accountancy jobs to which they are far better suited.


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