ABC, CBS report Bush's defense of Katrina response without noting congressional criticism

››› ››› MATTHEW BIEDLINGMAIER & JOCELYN FONG

ABC World News and CBS Evening News aired comments by President Bush at his January 12 press conference in defense of his administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, during which he asserted in part: "[C]ould I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge?" However, neither network's report noted the bipartisan congressional criticism of the Bush administration's response to Katrina.

On January 12, ABC World News uncritically aired comments by President Bush at a press conference earlier that day in defense of his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. He said in part: "I thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge?" But ABC's report did not note that the criticism of the federal government's response to Katrina goes far beyond the Air Force One incident, as documented in a May 2006 report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs and in a February 2006 report by the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Bipartisan Committee. Similarly, on January 12, CBS Evening News aired footage of Bush's comments about the Air Force One incident, as well as his assertion, "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed," also without noting the bipartisan congressional criticism of the Bush administration's response to Katrina.

On ABC World News, anchor Charles Gibson said of Bush's press conference: "For the first time, he talked extensively about mistakes in his presidency." Gibson then aired a clip from the press conference in which Bush said of Katrina:

BUSH: I've thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge? ... And then your questions, I suspect, would have been, "How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?"

On CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric said to CBS News political analyst and former counselor to President Bush Dan Bartlett: "Dan, I know you've described the administration's reaction to Hurricane Katrina as one of the most politically damaging of the presidency. He defended the administration's actions very vociferously today. Were you surprised at that?" Bartlett responded: "Not quite, Katie. It must have been -- it had -- it was, when I was there, one of the most frustrating chapters in the presidency. We went through a lot. But that one particularly, because of not only the public PR reception of some of the decisions he made, but also the enormity of the challenge, the difficulty of getting help to people. And we all struggled through that week to do what we thought was right." Couric then aired a clip from Bush's press conference, in which Bush asserted of Katrina:

BUSH: I've thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge? The problem with that and -- is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission, and then your questions, I suspect, would have been, "How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?" ... People said, "Well, the federal response was slow." Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed.

But neither report noted that bipartisan congressional committees issued reports critical of the Bush administration over its handling of Katrina. Indeed, the criticism was far broader than the issue of Bush's failure to "land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge" and more specific than that, as CBS aired Bush saying, "the federal response was slow."

As Media Matters for America documented, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs released a report in May 2006, which concluded that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "failed to lead an effective federal response to Hurricane Katrina" and listed specific steps that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff failed to take both before and after the storm. The report stated: "Secretary Chertoff failed to make ready the full range of federal assets pursuant to DHS's responsibilities under the National Response Plan (NRP)" and "failed to appoint a Principal Federal Official (PFO), the official charged with overseeing the federal response under the NRP, until 36 hours after landfall." Michael Brown, the PFO that Chertoff eventually chose, "was hostile to the federal government's agreed-upon response plan and therefore was unlikely to perform effectively in accordance with its principles." Moreover, the Senate report stated: "Even when appointed PFO, Brown remained the Director of FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], an apparent violation of the NRP's requirement that a PFO not be ' 'dual hatted' with any other roles or responsibilities that could detract from their overall incident-management responsibilities.' " The Senate report further stated that "the suffering that continued in the days and weeks after the storm passed did not happen in a vacuum; instead, it continued longer than it should have because of -- and was in some cases exacerbated by -- the failure of government at all levels to plan, prepare for, and respond aggressively to the storm. These failures were not just conspicuous; they were pervasive."

Similarly, the House of Representatives' Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, which released its final report on February 15, 2006, found that "DHS was not prepared to respond to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina." The report also found that "critical elements of the National Response Plan," parts of which Chertoff was responsible for, "were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all," and that "[f]ederal agencies, including DHS, had varying degrees of unfamiliarity with their roles and responsibilities under the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System." The report concluded: "We are left scratching our heads at the range of inefficiency and ineffectiveness that characterized government behavior right before and after this storm. But passivity did the most damage. The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are."

From the January 12 edition of ABC World News:

GIBSON: For the first time, he talked extensively about mistakes in his presidency.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: Clearly, putting a "Mission Accomplished" on a aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.

I've thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge? ... And then your questions, I suspect, would have been, "How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?"

[...]

BUSH: There have been disappointments. Abu Ghraib, obviously, was a huge disappointment during the presidency. Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment. I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.

[end video clip]

GIBSON: He talked about following his own compass and the burdens of the job.

From the January 12 edition of the CBS Evening News:

COURIC: Meanwhile, Dan, I know you've described the administration's reaction to Hurricane Katrina as one of the most politically damaging of the presidency. He defended the administration's actions very vociferously today. Were you surprised at that?

BARTLETT: Not quite, Katie. It must have been -- it had -- it was, when I was there, one of the most frustrating chapters in the presidency. We went through a lot. But that one particularly, because of not only the public PR reception of some of the decisions he made, but also the enormity of the challenge, the difficulty of getting help to people. And we all struggled through that week to do what we thought was right. And I think looking back on that, he felt like some of the big decisions we made we did get right. Some of the PR things we could have gotten better.

COURIC: Let's listen to what he had to say about that.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: I've thought long and hard about Katrina. You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge? The problem with that and -- is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission, and then your questions, I suspect, would have been, "How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge, and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?" ... People said, "Well, the federal response was slow." Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed.

[...]

BUSH: I was affected by TV after the elections. When I saw people saying, "I never thought I would see the day that a black person would be elected president," and a lot of people had tears streaming down their cheeks when they said it. And so, I am -- I am -- consider myself fortunate to have a front-row seat on what is going to be an historic moment for the country.

[...]

BUSH: And he'll get sworn in and they'll have the lunch and all the, you know, all the deal up there on Capitol Hill, and then he'll come back and go through the Inauguration. And then he'll walk in the Oval Office. And there will be a moment when the responsibilities of the president land squarely on his shoulders.

[...]

BUSH: Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends. And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He'll be disappointed.

[end video clip]

COURIC: A wide-ranging and fascinating final news conference today by President Bush. Jim Axelrod, Dan Bartlett, thank you so much for your perspectives tonight.

Network/Outlet
CBS, ABC
Person
Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric
Show/Publication
ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News
Stories/Interests
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
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