Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is the founder of the Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to producing groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The magnitude of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the media’s astonished—and astonishingly vigorous— response puts in perspective how hard it has generally become, in this country, to deliver the unadorned, unapologetic truth. Indeed, for at least as long as George Bush has been in office, the great unspoken challenge for mainstream journalists has been to do one’s job while keeping one’s job.
As the Bush organization has flipped one lever after another of a vast and well-fueled propaganda machine, it is has become ever more difficult for reporters to render useful, accurate information to the public without neutering it in the cop-out “on the one hand, on the other” format. Constant pressure from the White House is one challenge. Another is from corporate bosses who must produce untenable profit growth while maintaining friendly relations with the federal government.
One of the most tricky work environments surely must be the Fox News Network, Rupert Murdoch’s vehicle for dispensing highly opinionated, fact-light ‘news’ in the guise of helping provide Americans with “Fair and Balanced” journalism. And so it was with a sense of wonder that I viewed a clip of an exchange between two of Fox’s stars, Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera, and hard-core propagandist talk show host Sean Hannity, who had morphed into the role of anchorman for a “Fox News Alert”.
If you have broadband Internet access, you owe it to yourself to watch this exchange , which aired Friday night. Smith, Fox’s principal news anchor, and Rivera, its high-priced celebrity gunslinger, reported in from the scene of devastation in New Orleans. Smith and Rivera, both usually loyal to Fox’s rigidly pro-administration line, yell, cry (Geraldo) and generally register disgust as Hannity seeks to gild the Bush administration’s glacial response to the crisis. Here are a few choice excerpts:
SMITH: They won't let them walk out of the…convention center. .. they've locked them in there. The government said, "You go here, and you'll get help," or, "You go in that Superdome and you'll get help."
And they didn't get help. They got locked in there. And they watched people being killed around them. And they watched people starving. And they watched elderly people not get any medicine…..
And they've set up a checkpoint. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from there to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact.
HANNITY: All right, Shep, I want to get some perspective here, because earlier today...
SMITH: That is perspective! That is all the perspective you need!
Soon, Hannity switches to Geraldo, where he finds no relief:
RIVERA (holding aloft a baby): Sean…I want everyone in the world to see, six days after Katrina swept through this city, five days after the levee collapsed, this baby—this baby—how old is this baby?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ten months old…..
RIVERA: Look in the face of the baby. This is it. This is it. No sugar coating, no political spin, no Republicans or Democrats. People suffering.
Let them go. Let them out of here. Let them go. Let them walk over this damn interstate, and let them out of here.
HANNITY: All right. Thanks, Geraldo. Appreciate it. We appreciate—and from New Orleans tonight.
For once, Hannity was nearly speechless. His mandate—and preferences—were clear: Keep Fox’s viewers, Bush’s vaunted base, steady, until the administration spin machine could be shoved on top of the volatile events that threatened to expose the horrible truth about the priorities and competencies of this White House after an unprecedented, years-long free ride.
When Fox reporters are the most emphatically critical of the Bush administration, you know something is going on. Had Roger Ailes decided that it was simply impossible to ride out this storm with Bush? What of the defections of The New York Times’ conservative columnist David Brooks and others in recent days? Perhaps they figure that this is simply too enormous a screw-up to defend, and hope that by joining the ranks of the indignant they may escape a sinking ship. Or, maybe, maybe, even they have finally had enough.
Another remarkable breakthrough came Sunday, on Meet the Press , Tim Russert freshened his typical beltway bonhomie mix with a “real” person, Jefferson Parish President (i.e., county manager) Aaron Broussard. His guest, who, by the way, is white, delivered a startlingly blunt indictment of the federal response to the death and destruction facing the largely poor, black population that had been unable to get out.
BROUSSARD: ..[T]he aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. …Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me, they need to be fired right away, because we still have weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new leadership.
RUSSERT: Shouldn't the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility?
BROUSSARD: Sir, they were told like me, every single day, "The cavalry's coming," on a federal level, "The cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming." I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry. The cavalry's still not here yet, but I've begun to hear the hoofs, and we're almost a week out.
…We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. …we had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel right away." When we got there with our trucks, they got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel." Yesterday—yesterday—FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice….
...The guy who runs…emergency management…His mother was trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. [Broussard was sobbing at this point]
… Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
RUSSERT: Just take a pause, Mr. [Broussard]. While you gather yourself in your very emotional times, I understand, let me go to Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
And there we were, back in the bad old days. Russert had no tasteful way to note that Barbour had been GOP chairman in the mid-90s, a key strategist and fundraiser for the transformation of American government into a one-party state for the interests of the rich, and the dismantlement of the safety net, that, among other things, is supposed to protect all Americans from the most extreme ravages of natural disaster and daily life alike. Or to ask hard questions about Barbour’s avid support for Bush’s Iraqi war, and its unusual overseas deployment of National Guard units that properly should have been in place in the Gulf region to provide relief and order in case of emergency. It’s hard to point this out when you work for NBC, a unit of General Electric, a huge defense contractor that has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Bush administration priorities and policy.
Fixing journalism’s deep structural deficiencies will take more than the Labor Day Revolt. Getting it right means more than expressing momentary indignation, however heartfelt, or reporting on the current crisis as if the important thing was how the disaster is affecting the administration’s “approval” rating. Because it’s not the administration’s spin with which we need to concern ourselves. It is the media’s long, long sleep in the face of mounting evidence that Bush and his team are not only ideologues seriously out of touch with the American public but grievously incompetent managers of the nation’s commitments, resources and people.
As we take stock of the true costs of the failures surrounding Katrina, journalists should note their own role as collaborators. We, too, have been complicit in this.