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Hurricane Season Passes Without Incident, But Why Is Brian Williams Apologizing?

12/01/2006 06:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

hurricane season.jpgNewsbusters points out that Brian Williams closed out his broadcast from Jordan last night with a mea culpa of sorts, noting with relief that the hufficane season had passed without any actual hurricanes despite dark predictions from his and other networks. Said Williams: "Finally tonight, we have a confession. We got something wrong," admitting that the stream of "dire predictions" reported earlier in the season "wasn't even close" to the relatively mild season that just passed. But what did Williams get wrong? Here's how he opened his May 31, 2006 broadcast:

Good evening, and we are indeed back in New Orleans tonight because this is the eve of the start of the 2006 hurricane season. Along the way, we hope to answer the question: Are they ready for another one?

Pretty fair question at the time, considering that the word on the street was that actually, no, they weren't ready for another one. In fact, this is what Williams wrote on The Daily Nightly the next day: "Katrina might as well have been yesterday. There has been no attempt to clean up the wreckage, still fresh, that you will see behind us at our camera location." On that June 1st broadcast, Williams discussed the report of the Army Corps of Engineers which admitted the structural flaws behind New Orlean's pre-Katrina levee system, and looked at the readiness of the city going forward.

So why is Williams apologizing, or even remotely sheepish? He acknowledges that the predictions they reported — and sourced — came directly from government forecasters, who predicted 16 separate named storms, 8-10 of them hurricanes, with half hitting Category 3 or greater. See above: Pretty good reason to examine whether New Orleans and the Gulf Region were adequately braced for another one.

This wasn't rumormongering; this was reporting. A very, very bad thing happened, the seriouness of which was downplayed by the federal government (that same federal government who downplays civil wars and bad news from Iraq), and the organization responsible for protecting a city against massive flooding just admitted that, oops, they screwed up. And they admitted it the day the new hurricane season started. So, yeah, it did sort of behoove the media to take a good, hard look at all the known facts and present them to the reader/viewer accordingly. Which it sounds like NBC did in this case; certainly presenting the forecasts for hurricane season — by experts — would be sort of relevant to the ongoing story. Williams and the news media didn't get it wrong, they got it right; last I checked the journalistic virtues of transparency and accuracy didn't include clairvoyancy.*

So again, why is Williams apologizing? For the same reason that NewsBusters is lauding that apology: Because the right-wing spin machine has created a blame-the-media meme any time there is bad news, turning the straight reporting of facts into a nefarious partisan agenda (cf. Bill O'Reilly just yesterday: "We have a press that is invested in seeing that President Bush is humiliated in Iraq"). NewsBusters wonders if other journalists "who eagerly hyped the dire forecasts for the first hurricane season after Katrina" will "follow Williams' lead" and, presumably, eat crow because someone else was wrong about something no one ever promised they'd be right about.

When the question becomes "Why won't you report anything good happening?" instead of "Why is there so much more bad happening?" the blame is thrown entirely in the wrong direction, and on the wrong parties. That's the genius of the right's unrelenting attacks on the press, Katrina to Iraq to global warming to NSA spying and covert review of bank records. There's nothing wrong with Brian Williams reporting on the events of the hurricane season, and how they failed to accord with scientific forecasting. There is something wrong for him apologizing for it, as though reporting the news is somehow wrong. It's not. What's wrong is that the media have been attacked so repeatedly for realistic takes on horrendous situations that Williams actually thinks he has something to apologize for.

*So not a word but it sounded good. We apologize to our readers, we got it wrong.