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Let's hope the truth will out

I'm in the office to work today, but first I need to transcribe a column from this morning's Los Angeles Times.  It seems that every time I think I can't get more angry about Katrina, something comes along to prove me wrong.  noblerot, what do you think?

 

This article was written by Tim Rutten and appears in the September 10, 2005 Los Angeles Times.

These days, the Bush administration doesn't seem well enough organized to have an enemies list, but if it did, it's clear that some of the upper rungs would be reserved for photojournalists.

First, the administration prohibited the press from taking pictures of the flag-draped coffins of U.S. servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war.  The ban's ostensible purpose was to protect the privacy of the dead and their grieving families.  Imagine where support for the war and President Bush's approval rating would stand if newspapers had been allowed to print photos of 1,895 flag-covered coffins and you've got the real reason for withholding these images from the American people.

Before he was relieved of his duties in New Orleans and packed off to Washington on Friday, Michael D. Brown, the shambling head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, rejected journalists' requests that they be allowed to accompany search parties seeking storm victims in New Orleans.  More to the point, a FEMA spokeswoman told Reuters news agency in an e-mail:  "We have requestd that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media."  You bet they have.

This is the same Michael Brown who waited five hours after Hurricane Katrina made landfall to ask his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, for permission to send 1,000 federal workers to assist rescuers in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.  In the memo making the request, Brown told Chertoff that part of the workers' assignment would be to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public."

Whoops.

This week, Louisiana officials said they have prepared for this next stage of the recovery operation by amassing 25,000 body bags.  Asked if he expected that many dead, Bob Johannessen of the state's Department of Health and Hospitals told Associated Press, "We don't know what to expect."  New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had said that the death toll in his city might reach 10,000, though an estimate Friday by a city official was much lower.  Mississippi's official count has reached 201, but officials there say they fear more than 1,000 dead remain to be uncovered.

It's very hard to "convey a positive image" when the "general public" sees you stacking corpses like cordwood.

Apparently, that's what began to dawn on Brown, who is one of five out of eight top FEMA officials with no actual background in disaster relief.  Patrick J. Rhode, his chief of staff, and Brooks D. Altshuler, the deputy chief of staff, formerly were political advance men for the president's campaign and the White House.  Brown himself used to run Arabian horse shows.  The convenient thing about screwing one of those up is that the poor brutes can't complain -- or ask questions or take photographs.

Reporters and photojournalists are another matter.

Friday, both NBC and the Washington Post were reporting that troops policing New Orleans had warned journalists not to try to collect or transmit unapproved images.  In at least one instance, the admonition reportedly came at the point of a gun.

Sometimes it takes stern measures to "convey a positive image."

Whatever they don't know about helping people victimized by disaster, the White House cronies now running FEMA completely understand what happens when your images are negative and not positive, which is what this latest attempt at hiding the ball is all about.

In a national poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, the nonpartisan Pew Center for the People and the Press found that 67% of the American people think Bush should have done more to speed relief, while only 28% say they think he did all he could.

As a consequence the survey found, Bush's approval rating has fallen to 40%, and his disapproval level has risen to 52%.  The White House is likely to find it particularly disturbing that the president's standing has fallen furthest among self-identified conservatives and Republicans.

According to the poll's director, Andrew Kohut, "Fully 58% of respondents say they have felt depressed because of what's happened in areas affected by the storm.["]  In recent years, this percentage is surpassed by the 71% that reported feeling depressed in a survey taken just days after the Sept. 11 attacks.  But the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came literally out of the blue.  Hurricane Katrina -- and its aftermath -- were not only foreseeable but also foreseen.

Questions quite naturally arise from that, which is why the administration and its apologists in the media have gone on the offensive, trying to discredit aggressive reporting from the scene as partisan.  It's why Brown and the rest of his crew of political hacks want to cut off reporters' access and, especially, choke off the flow of pictures that have sent Americans flocking to newspapers and the cable news networks.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer has come under particular attack for persisting in asking tough questions about the part race may have played in the New Orleans debacle.  Is Bltzer "stirring up" racial antagonism or creating division where none exists, as his critics have charged?  Not according to the Pew survey, which took the trouble of enlarging its sample this week in order to get an accurate fix on how both white and African Americans regard the disaster.  The survey found a yawning gap -- 71% of blacks feel the disaster demonstrates that racial inequality remains a major problem, while 56% of whites do not agree; 66% of African Americans think the government would have responded more quickly if most of the victims had been white, a proposition with which 77% of whites disagree.

Are we really to believe that Blitzer and CNN created this disparity in attitudes?

On the front page of Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Christopher Cooper reported that, while New Orleans' poor, black majority has suffered through loss and dislocation, the city's old-line white elite has remained in their mansions in the fashionable Uptown area.  No military rations for them.  They're getting regular deliveries of gasoline for their private generators, ice for their cocktails and their favorite culinary delicacies.  No looting here, as private security is in place.  In the exclusive, gated community of Audubon Place, business executive James Reiss helicoptered in employees of an Israeli security company to guard his house and those of his neighbors.  (You can bet these guys don't want to see a federal disaster relief bill derail abolition of the inheritance tax.)

Reiss told the Journal that New Orleans must be rebuilt with fewer poor people.  "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way -- demographically, geocraphically and politically ... or we're out."

So, are we really to believe that the Wall Street Journal is now in the business of stirring up class warfare?

The electorate's popular genius always has been an aversion to ideology.  That rejection of dogma historically has expressed itself in a preference for what Arthur Schlesinger termed "the politics of remedy."  American people, in other words, want their government to solve the problems they can't solve for themselves -- like vast, city-destroying natural catastrophes.

This inclination is a great inconvenience to the practitioners of our new paint-pot politics, who won't be satisfied until every inch of the country has been re-colored red or blue.  To complete their makeover, they need the rest of the country to do what they do: demand news that comports with their politics rather than politics that accord with the facts.  They want an electorate that puts political purity ahead of solutions.

These are the people, inside the administration and out, who have a stake in discrediting the independent reporting now coming out of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as "ideologically biased," or "an attempt to play the blame game."  These are the people who don't want you to see pictures of our dead.

FEMA's leaders showed little enough concern for the people of New Orleans when they were alive.  The notion that they're now concerned with their dignity and privacy in death is frankly laughable.

What this administration really is concerned about is not respect for those who died but what will follow when photojournalists help transform bureaucrats' sterile column of casualty figures into the reality of thousands of dead Americans.

That's an image likely to haunt our political imagination for a long time to come.

 

 

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Comments

aswanargent
Sep. 12th, 2005 03:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for being so angry.

The government learned its lesson after Vietnam, and the watchword now is "out of sight, out of mind". It's been discouragingly successful.