06/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Attempt to Rebrand in the City the Press Corps Forgot

NEW ORLEANS -- Here, Tuesday night, just beyond the municipal limits of the City that Care Forgot, John McCain kicked off his general election run against Barack Obama. He also attended a New Orleans $10,000 per couple benefit this week, more evidence of his staggeringly tone-deaf advance team if the mainstream media had covered the fact. Funds raised at the benefit did not go toward New Orleans recovery, but to McCain's presidential campaign. Doubling up, McCain then attended a suburban house party benefit with supporters that included Big Oil reps -- the same industry that dredged canals that allowed the saltwater intrusion that has eroded the gulf's fragile wetlands barriers.

Yesterday McCain told listeners "We must also prepare, far better than we have, to respond quickly and effectively to a natural calamity. When Americans confront a catastrophe, they have a right to expect basic competence from their government. Firemen and policemen should be able to communicate with each other in an emergency. We should be able to deliver bottled water to dehydrated babies and rescue the infirm from a hospital with no electricity. Our disgraceful failure to do so here in New Orleans exposed the incompetence of government at all levels to meet even its most basic responsibilities."

On an April visit, he offered the same sentiments while touring the 9th Ward -- just before attending a private fund-raiser. The mainstream press silence on this dichotomy of a candidate offering to help with one hand and taking donations from wealthy residents of a devastated city on the other has been deafening. Famously well liked by members of the press, McCain's teflon coating is as yet undented.

News Trust, in collaboration with OffTheBus, is hosting a News hunting McCain project that examines not only coverage of the candidate but also how it is filtered through corporate media conglomerates. For example, not only has McCain voted more than once against any 8/29 Commission to investigate the flawed Katrina disaster response, he spent 8/29/05 on an Arizona tarmac with George Bush blowing out 69 birthday candles -- because Hurricane Katrina made landfall on McCain's birthday. He didn't make it to New Orleans for seven more months.

As a city resident displaced by the disaster, I have followed press coverage in the mainstream media, and after an initial flurry of stories, our city's recovery is off the grid. Most news agencies pulled their New Orleans bureaus and descend once a year for the Katrina anniversary. Scott McClellan's "What Happened" bombshell about an administration grinding at its nonstop political propaganda machine sheds light on why there's a coverage gap. Intensive post-Katrina coverage is the last thing the Republican Party needs. And not since William Hearst's vanity war has media coverage been so deeply influenced by Washington, a fact verified by the president's former press secretary.

In the blowback from McClellan's book, reporter David Gregory even pointed the finger at the American public for the lack of dissenting coverage before Operation Iraqi Freedom. CNN's Jessica Yellin (who was at MSNBC at the time) admitted on air that anything not matching the patriotic fervor of the time was censored. She later printed not a retraction but a clarification on CNN's website and has probably since been reassigned to Siberia (or to Puerto Rico or Minnesota). Big media is filling the shrinking news hole with anything but the story of New Orleans and the failures that led to its ongoing tragedy. Despite that fact, the city's massive levee failure, and the politics that led to it, has been another of the issues plaguing Bush's Republican party, and so McCain hoped to be seen as breaking ranks by framing this week's speech here. In describing the visit, his spokeswoman said New Orleans isn't a "traditional launching place" and that McCain's not a typical Republican.

This would be more viable if, after blowing out his birthday candles three years ago, the candidate had suggested that the president join him on the family jet and head down to the gulf to help evacuate survivors. Like Al Gore did in his jet. After all, they were already on a tarmac. The month after Katrina, McCain told The New Leader that spending too much on the hurricane victims was problematic because "We're going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country." He didn't show a similar concern when it was time to fund The Surge.

The current press secretary, Dana Perino, answered McCain's April Administration scolding by pointing out Katrina response failures at the state and local levels, "which they have admitted to." One has to wonder what the book inside her head is beginning to look like.

Today in Louisiana, McCain said he envisioned a series of presidential campaign town-hall debates, like those Barry Goldwater and John F. Kennedy agreed to hold before Kennedy was assassinated. The press reported the Kennedy assassination reference without noting any troubling implications, and Obama's campaign countered that they would enjoy debates more along the Lincoln-Douglas lines -- long, detailed debates about policy. Unbiased coverage of these forums will only be possible if McClellan's warning cry is heeded.

Here is what would have been on the front page in 2006 if Bush's press secretary was not engaged in a self-admitted permanent propaganda campaign: The war was based on false intelligence and the wife of the man who sounded a national alarm on the flawed data was outed as a CIA employee by the Bush Administration as a lesson to whistle blowers.

Given that the following is the 10th most popular story on CNN, I have hope that the national media is beginning to adequately cover the ongoing New Orleans mental health crisis: A mentally ill Katrina survivor was told to give up his trailer by FEMA officials yesterday. He lived in Lakeview, a well-to-do area of the city where the 17th Street levee was leaking before the storm. It's still leaking. Officials allege that the man put his hand near his gun as they were leaving his trailer. Army tanks and squad cars gathered for a standoff, and after being teargassed the man ran firing into the officers and was shot and killed. In 2006, a New Orleans Daily News photographer who had seen the horrors of Katrina tried to commit suicide by cop before receiving the mental health care he so desperately needed. Even that event did not bring about long-term coverage of the lack of post traumatic health care in New Orleans.

When reporters learn which stories tend to be pulled by their publishers, they stop writing them. We're still waiting for this generation's Edward R. Murrow, Jack Anderson or Molly Ivins. The gap in coverage lands squarely at the doorstep of the gatekeepers because in the runup to war, as in the aftermath of the levee break in New Orleans, they have stood for too long between Americans and their potential for compassion.

And far too many lives have been lost in the wake.