Media gave Bush free pass for repeating false “dodged a bullet” claim about New Orleans levees

After touring hurricane-ravaged New Orleans on September 12, President Bush met with reporters and repeated the specious claim that his discredited statement -- “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” -- was based on news reports from the morning after the storm indicating that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” But the media either uncritically repeated Bush's hollow explanation of his comments -- first offered up by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- or ignored it entirely.

The assertion that the president relied on news reports to apprise himself of the situation in New Orleans -- rather than the National Weather Service, which reported the first levee breaches before and shortly after Hurricane Katrina passed through New Orleans -- is an incredible one. But in fact, many in the media were not reporting that New Orleans “dodged a bullet,” as Media Matters for America has noted. For example, 12 hours before the time when Bush claims to have heard the “dodged a bullet” news reports, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that the levees had been breached. Moreover, while Bush did not indicate from which “airwaves” he had heard the “dodged a bullet” reports, other newspapers in addition to the Times-Picayune reported on the morning after the storm that there had already been breached levees and significant flooding. For example, on August 30, the Los Angeles Times reported that a levee break had occurred by late morning August 29, with water from the break “spill[ing] through the area, flooding the town's two main shelters and swamping the local National Guard armory, leaving even public safety officials homeless.”

Nevertheless, at a September 12 meeting with reporters, when Bush was asked, “Did they [administration officials] misinform you when you said no one anticipated the breach of the levees?” he responded:

BUSH: No. What I was referring to is this: When that storm came by, a lot of people said we dodged a bullet. When that storm came through at first, people said, “Whew.” There was a sense of relaxation. And that's what I was referring to. And I myself thought we had dodged a bullet. You know why? Because I was listening to people probably over the airwaves say, “The bullet has been dodged.” And that was what I was referring to. Of course, there were plans in case the levee had been breached. There was a sense of relaxation at a critical moment. And thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that.

Bush's comments echoed those of Chertoff and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard B. Myers, who said on September 6: “The headline, of course, in most of the country's papers on Tuesday were 'New Orleans dodged a bullet,' or words to that effect. At that time, when those words were in our minds, we started working issues before we were asked.”

Bush's continued spinning of his discredited remarks drew scant attention from the media. According to a Nexis search*, just two major papers covered Bush's comments on September 13: The Boston Globe and Newsday. The Globe simply quoted Bush, while Newsday reprinted portions of a September 12 Associated Press article, which noted: “He [Bush] said he got that impression from the media.” The September 13 Atlanta Journal-Constitution reprinted that portion of Bush's statement.

The September 12 broadcast of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, correspondent David Greene reported simply that Bush “revisited” his comment. CNN covered Bush's remarks live, but failed to challenge the president's spinning of his own remarks. However, on the September 12 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown, John Dickerson of and Time magazine White House correspondent Mike Allen discussed the president's comments, and Dickerson noted: “The White House and the administration says that they were relying on the people on the ground seeing what was going wrong. Well, that's a fair point, except that the Department of Homeland Security should be able to do a little bit better than watching just the news reports on television.”

CNN, while remaining uncritical of the president, did refute similar claims made by Chertoff. On the September 12 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, correspondent Tom Foreman challenged Chertoff's claim that the flooding in New Orleans “did catch people by surprise.”

From the September 12 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:

FOREMAN: The head of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], Michael Chertoff, has insisted for two weeks he had no warning of how bad Katrina could be.

CHERTOFF: Even as everybody thought New Orleans had dodged the bullet Tuesday morning, the levee was not only being flooded, which is I think what most people always assumed would happen, but it actually broke. So I think that was -- did catch people by surprise.

FOREMAN: But it turns out the National Weather Service issued a detailed message a day before the strike, saying buildings would be leveled, high-rises crippled and most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. In addition, and again contrary to Chertoff's claims, FEMA was most certainly warned that the levees could collapse, although even well after the levees failed, FEMA officials continued to downplay how bad the flooding might be. One said, “I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a soup bowl. That's just not happening.” But in fact, it was happening.

* Nexis search was for “Bush and Katrina and (dodg! w/5 bullet)” in major newspapers and transcripts.