09/09/2005 12:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Deference to Outrage: Katrina and the Press

I was on a break from blogging when Hurricane Katrina hit and New Orleans went down, but people kept sending me stuff. The article most often sent to me was a commentary by Matt Wells of the BBC, "Has Katrina saved US media?" Possibly it has, he said: "Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina."

The "timid and self-censoring journalistic culture" in the U.S. is normally "no match for the masterfully aggressive spin-surgeons of the Bush administration," Wells wrote. "But last week the complacency stopped, and the moral indignation against inadequate government began to flow, from slick anchors who spend most of their time glued to desks in New York and Washington."

Other observers made the same point: national journalism was awakening after a period of intimidation, and finding its voice by voicing its anger. Typical was this Agence France Presse report: "In the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US television's often deferential treatment of government officials has been replaced by fiercely combative interviews and scathing commentary."

In the New York Times, a review of TV coverage by Alessandra Stanley was headlined: "Reporters Turn From Deference to Outrage." Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle remarked on it:

Bush and his administration have come under withering attack not only from a lengthy and bipartisan list of other politicians but also from anchors on nearly every channel -- opinion-makers in the heat of the moment -- whose voices abandoned objectivity and rose up in questioning tones as they took Bush and federal department heads to task.

Howard Kurtz saw not just a return of backbone, but a renewal of purpose: "Journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being," he wrote. It's a pity he didn't say what that reason was; I would have liked to have heard it. (See Kurtz' reply here.) But in Kurtz's mind, the recovery of mission was connected to the display of emotion, like when CNN's Anderson Cooper interrupted Sen. Mary Landrieu as she thanked some of her fellow officials for their hard work. "Do you get the anger that is out here?" he said. Kurtz:

This kind of activist stance, which would have drawn flak had it come from American reporters in Iraq, seemed utterly appropriate when applied to the yawning gap between mounting casualties and reassuring rhetoric. For once, reporters were acting like concerned citizens, not passive observers. And they were letting their emotions show, whether it was ABC's Robin Roberts choking up while recalling a visit to her mother on the Gulf Coast or CNN's Jeanne Meserve crying as she described the dead and injured she had seen.

The repeal of on-air reticence was good, he said. "Maybe, just maybe, journalism needs to bring more passion to the table -- and not just when cable shows are obsessing on the latest missing white woman." Two examples of bringing it to the table: this acid commentary from Keith Olbermann, courtesy of Crooks and Liars ("Let's hope Olbermann does more 'op-ed' type segments on his show from now on") and this more measured one from CBS's Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation.

Alessandra Stanley said the renewed aggression is a reflection of public outrage, "but it is buoyed by a rare sense of righteous indignation by a news media that is usually on the defensive." In this it made a difference that journalists were doing a demonstrably better job than government. "Viewers could see that as late as Thursday, television news crews could travel freely back and forth from the convention center, but water trucks, ambulances and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could not."

Stanley's colleague David Carr, media columnist for the business section of the Times, also saw a promising switch in direction. In his imagery, the press had hit a low point recently, and was now on the rise.

Mr. Cooper's well-shaded outrage -- he stopped just this short of editorializing -- elicited the kind of anger that has been mostly missing from a toothless press. After a couple of years on the run from the government, public skepticism and self-inflicted wounds, the press corps felt its toes touch bottom in the Gulf Coast and came up big.

Big like it used to be, back in the day. Peter Johnson in USA Today: "Some observers say that Katrina's media legacy may be a return to a post-Watergate-like era of tougher scrutiny of the federal government and public policy issues." Gal Beckerman at CJR Daily wasn't one of those observers. "What happened last week wasn't anything like [Watergate]; it was a lot of agitated, incredulous reporters channeling the anger of the stranded people they were among, and delivering it to those who deserved to hear it."

For the political left, the story was not the "recovery of backbone" but how could it take so long? Salon's Eric Boehlert: "For years, frustrated news consumers have wondered what it would take to finally awaken the press from its perpetual, lazy slumber. Now we know the answer: one ravaged American city and a few thousand dead civilians." The coverage was timid at first, he said. "Eventually, though, the pictures from New Orleans became too ghastly to ignore and reporters turned angry."

"We sometimes find ourselves at a loss as to whether we should be more appalled at the Bush Administration's ideological obsession, its incompetence, its arrogance, its anti-intellectualism, or its dishonesty," wrote Eric Alterman at his perch at MSNBC. "In New Orleans, we see all of these forces at work in a manner that the mainstream media finally finds itself unable to ignore."

Both Josh Marshall and Arianna Huffington pointed away from backbone recovery to ask how the Washington Post allowed itself to be used by a nameless Bush official peddling the "fact" that as of Sep. 3rd, Lousiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco still had not declared a state of emergency. (Newsweek also had it.) This turned out to be wrong. She declared an emergency on Aug. 26.

"The unquestioning regurgitation of administration spin through the use of anonymous sources is the fault line of modern American journalism," said Huffington. "It's time for the media to get back to doing their job and stop being the principal weapon in Team Bush's damage control arsenal." It is indeed inexplicable that a false fact from an off-the-record source -- charging a dereliction of duty in the opposite party -- gets into the Washington Post. That sounds like the behavior of a palace press.

Meanwhile, in the Media Blog at National Review Online, Stephen Spruiell said he expected to see "a lot of these stories about how journalism has 'gotten its spine back'-- by which they mean that journalists are acting like a bunch of know-it-alls to whom the solution to every problem was obvious all along." In his view, a pre-existing inclination to "blame Bush" was simply allowed more room to express itself.

Spruiell thought it was a highlight that "reporters put a lot of passion into their stories and brought the drama right into your living room." But then the lowlight: "The reporters put a lot of anti-administration animosity into their analysis, failing to provide the context of state, local and federal failures and settling on the easy story: Blame Bush." (See also his reaction to this post.)

Why did Giuliani get the credit in New York after 9/11, while Bush gets the blame in New Orleans? That's what righty Hugh Hewitt wanted to know: "Who is in charge when bad things happen to big cities?"

The MSM's answer seems to be: Cities, when things go right and the mayor is courageous and telegenic; the President when the locals are in way over their heads. Not a very satisfactory answer, but MSM is hardly searching for answers, only ratings.

"In the wake of a mortifyingly slow government response to the Gulf Coast disaster, the press is demanding answers from the White House with unprecedented vigor," wrote Dan Froomkin in his White House Briefing column. (See the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions with Scott McClellan.) The "post-Katrina press awakening," as he called it, "is not the result of reporters expressing their personal or political opinions so much as it is about their asking tough questions based on what they, and others, have seen with their own eyes." He continues:

Bush and his aides are finding it impossible to wave off the incontrovertible facts and heart-rending images emerging from the lake that was once a great American city. They're finding it harder to set the news agenda. And the scathing criticism is becoming increasingly bipartisan, freeing reporters from the obligation to make every White House story sound like one with two sides equally based in reality.

A good example is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: "As a test of the homeland-security system, this was a failure."

In Peter Johnson's USA article I was quoted thusly: "Journalists seem to be much more effective than the administration in representing the public's reactions to the disaster," Rosen says. "Clueless federal officials seem to know less about what is happening than the journalists do, and sometimes less than an average TV viewer. This tips the balance of power toward the press, which is why we see such aggressive questioning and on-air criticism close to jeering."

A balance-of-power shift that is specific to the Katrina situation is, I think, more descriptive of what's happened with the press than the sudden discovery of "spine," a recovered sense of outrage, or the return of Watergate-era confidence. This part Johnson did not quote from our e-mail interview: What appears to be a struggle between the White House and the press is always a triangular relationship among journalists, the Administration and the public. Each leg -- the President and the American people, the White House and the national press, the press corps and the public -- counts. If we look at two sides without reckoning with the third we'll always go wrong.

Froomkin last week pointed to the gulf "between what [the] administration says it is doing and what the American public is watching on television." This is the kind of explanation that makes sense to me. That visible gulf--as wide as it's ever been last week--changes the balance of power. Sheelah Kolhatkar and Rebecca Dana elaborate in the New York Observer: "The combination of a sudden catastrophe, diminished communications and a lack of any authority on the ground for days to disseminate, filter or spin Katrina's aftermath has remade the press, and its relationship to the Bush administration."

That too is getting there. Even more to the point was this from the Observer:

"For the most part, we generally arrive at this type of story either just after or as the first responders are responding," said David Verdi, a senior vice president for NBC News. "We're usually standing shoulder to shoulder with the firemen or the policemen or the Marines, which allows us to record the incident. In this story, however, we were here before there was a first responder, and what made this particularly tough was that after Day 2, when it became very apparent to us that there were people in need, there were no first responders that we could see."

The press gained back some of its missing authority because in this situation public authority was missing.

So that's what they're saying about the news media and the Gulf Coast crisis. Now here is my view. Spine is always good, outrage is sometimes needed, and empathy can often reveal the story. But there is no substitute for being able to think, and act journalistically on your conclusions. What is the difference between a "blame game" and real accountability? If you have no idea because you've never really thought about it, then your outrage can easily misfire. This is from Kurtz:

On television, the frustration boiled over at different times. Fox's Shepard Smith shouted questions at a cop who refused to answer, saying: "What are you going to do with all these people? When is help coming for these people? Is there going to be help? I mean, they're very thirsty. Do you have any idea yet? Nothing? Officer?"

PostWatch comments: "I saw that clip live, and kudos to a brave Shepard Smith for charging into the disaster. But the cop he was chasing was obviously entirely out of the loop and in no position to answer any of Smith's questions." Did it matter, then, if the questions were tough?

What are the proper reponsibilities for city government, state government and the national government? If you haven't thought about it, and drawn the necessary conclusions, all the backbone in the world won't tell you where to aim your questions. The New Yorker's press critic is Nick Lemann, who's from New Orleans. He observes:

The wetlands that protected the city on the south and west have been deteriorating from commercial exploitation for years, thanks to inaction by Louisiana as well as by the United States. It isn't Washington that decided it's O.K. to let retail establishments in New Orleans sell firearms—which are now being extensively stolen and turned to the service of increasing the chaos in the city.

What is realistic to expect in a chaotic situation like New Orleans faced in the week after the hurricane? Not an easy question. An intelligent and nuanced answer to that is worth a lot more to journalists than righteous indignation, because if your rage overcomes your realism you will eventually sound ridiculous even to those who share the feeling.

What are the differences in the way our political system handles a problem that is real and manifest (present to the senses) vs. a threat that is real but not manifest at all (abstract until it's right upon us)? If you haven't thought about it, you might find "lack of preparation" inhuman and incomprehensible. If you have, lack of preparation begins to seem all-too-human, and not to plan looks more like a policy choice.

Jeff Jarvis said anger wasn't the best part of journalism's performance after Katrina. "I think the best of it is that journalism knows it has not done its best. That is new."

Last week, as the horror of it only started to rise, Aaron Brown turned his langorous gaze to the camera and tried to ask a correspondent whether we -- CNN, reporters, all of journalism -- yet had our hands around the story, the size of it. He didn't get an answer -- bad communications got in the way -- but that didn't matter, for the question was the answer. No, we did not nearly know what the story was.

Brown was asking his person to think.

I include in that thinking politically about the press itself. Perhaps an "activist stance" (Kurtz's term) is a sustainable direction. Or perhaps it isn't. At my weblog, PressThink, I once asked if we were headed for an opposition press. How can it be avoided if, say, we begin to see the press locked out of New Orleans as the authorities assert control? Maybe scathing commentary should come to the forefront, in the manner of a front page editorial that sticks around and becomes a permanent feature. Or maybe it's reporters acting like concerned citizens all the time.

If you can think with the situation it doesn't matter (for your journalism) if you break down and emote. If you can't think, and can't draw conclusions that influence your reporting, then bringing passion to the table isn't going to change a damn thing. And I don't believe Katrina has "saved" the news media from itself, either, although I agree that, by turning itself into an online forum, has been an inspiration.

Finally, the challenge for American journalism is not to recover its reason for being, but to find a stronger and better one. The world has changed. It's not enough to be tough.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and is writing a book on what the Internet's doing to the press. His weblog is PressThink.