News outlets described Katrina probe as "bipartisan," ignored that Democrats will be outnumbered and lack subpoena power


In recent reporting on Democratic opposition to the Republican-proposed House-Senate investigation into failures in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, several media outlets have misleadingly described the proposed committee as "bipartisan." In fact, one of the main reasons given by the Democratic leadership for opposing the Republicans' proposal is that it would not be a true bipartisan panel: Republicans would hold a majority on the committee and would have sole subpoena power.

On September 8, congressional Republicans announced a plan to form an investigative commission into the government's response to the recent catastrophe. The Washington Post reported:

House and Senate GOP leaders announced the "Hurricane Katrina Joint Review Committee," which will include only members of Congress, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by a yet-to-be-determined ratio.


A Republican-led Congress cannot be trusted to make a thorough investigation of a Republican administration, said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Democrats strongly prefer that the response to Hurricane Katrina be investigated by a commission of independent experts like the 9/11 commission," he said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the new commission "is not truly bipartisan, will not be made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, cannot write legislation and will not have bipartisan subpoena power.

But in the week following the Republicans' announcement, several news outlets simply described Democrats as objecting to the formation of a "bipartisan" congressional panel. While some of these outlets did mention the Democratic support for an independent investigation modeled on the 9-11 Commission, they all ignored the Democrats' specific objections to the GOP-led probe. For example, on the September 12 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux reported that Democrats refused to join the proposed investigation because "they just don't think it's a good idea":

MALVEAUX: Well, Anderson, as you probably know, there is still a debate that's taking place. The administration is backing a Republican plan. They, of course, want a bipartisan panel to move forward. The Democrats say, look, they want an independent commission, very much like the 9-11 Commission, and so far, the Democratic leadership says that they are not willing to even appoint members as a part of this bipartisan panel because they just don't think it's a good idea.

So they're essentially at a standstill here. We don't know when they're going to start that investigation. That is something that has to be resolved, just how and when it begins, and that starts essentially with Congress and with the administration coming up with some sort of negotiated plan.

A September 12 Washington Times article depicted the Democratic opposition similarly:

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said he is disappointed with the harsh tone of the Democratic rhetoric.

"Congress has reacted to Hurricane Katrina by trying to lead the country in a bipartisan way to help the hurricane victims," Mr. Bonjean said. "We've been on the ball funding the effort and providing the help to get people back on their feet."

He said the congressional Republican leadership "reached out" to Democrats to solve the crisis on the ground and form a bipartisan committee to study the failures in the government's response. Mrs. Pelosi, however, said her party would not participate in the commission.

A September 16 Los Angeles Times article also failed to fully represent the nature of the Democrats' objections:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) indicated that he would bring a similar resolution to the Senate floor next week, despite Democrats' refusal to participate in what congressional Republican leaders have said would be a bipartisan House-Senate investigation.

Democrats continue to press for formation of an independent commission, modeled on the one that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to examine the government's response to the hurricane. 

In addition, an article in the September 19 issue of Time magazine simply described Democrats as refusing to "accept a bipartisan panel":

The second tactic could be summed up as, Don't look back. The White House has sent delegates to meetings in Washington of outside Republican groups who have plans to blame the Democrats and state and local officials. In the meantime, it has no plans to push for a full-scale inquiry like the 9/11 commission, which Bush bitterly opposed until the pressure from Congress and surviving families made resistance futile.

Congressional Democrats have said they are unwilling to settle for anything less than an outside panel, but White House officials said they do not intend to give in, and will portray Democrats as politicking if they do not accept a bipartisan panel proposed by Republican congressional leaders. Ken Mehlman, the party's chairman and Bush's campaign manager last year, told TIME that viewers at home will think it's "kind of ghoulish, the extent to which you've got political leaders saying not 'Let's help the people in need' but making snide comments about vacations."

Further, in reports on the recent House vote to approve the Republican-led investigation, both CNN and Fox News described the proposed committee as "bipartisan" and omitted mention of any Democratic opposition to the investigation:

From the September 15 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

PHIL KEATING (correspondent): Also, a House of Representatives committee has voted to create a 20-member bipartisan committee to investigate fully the hurricane response and relief effort with the mission to report its final findings to the full House no later than February 15.

From the September 16 edition of CNN's Live at Daybreak:

CAROL COSTELLO (anchor): And to that end, the president also said Congress would begin an investigation into the government's response to Katrina. That investigation will be led by Virginia Republican Tom Davis. Davis, you'll remember, led the House committee that held the steroid hearings in March. The bipartisan select committee is expected to report its results by February 15.

Also, a September 15 Roll Call article (subscription required) appeared under the headline "House OK's Bipartisan Katrina Review Panel." The article itself did report that Democrats have "objected over the committee's majority tilt."

Posted In
Environment & Science
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
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