“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

With residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama literally struggling to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some news organizations are asking obvious questions: Did we know it would be this bad? Could more have been done to prevent this disaster? Can more be done in the future?

This Week:

News outlets downplay Bush administration's failure to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina

The Plamegate question nobody's asking: Why did Time magazine deceive readers about Rove's involvement?

News outlets downplay Bush administration's failure to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina

With residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama literally struggling to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some news organizations are asking obvious questions: Did we know it would be this bad? Could more have been done to prevent this disaster? Can more be done in the future?

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example, reported on August 31:

No one can say they didn't see it coming.

For years before Hurricane Katrina roared ashore Monday morning, devastating the Gulf Coast, officials from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been warning about their vulnerability to the storms that swirl menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico every hurricane season. Now, in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.

On Tuesday, looters could be seen carrying away whole shelves of merchandise from stores in New Orleans with no police in sight. A shortage of boats left people stranded on their roofs a day after the storm passed. State, local and federal rescue workers, all supplied with different radio equipment, were having trouble communicating with one another.

Meanwhile, local officials said that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection -- including fortifying homes, building up levees and repairing barrier islands -- the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it was.

“If we had been investing resources in restoring our coast, it wouldn't have prevented the storm, but the barrier islands would have absorbed some of the tidal surge,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La. “People's lives are at stake. We need to take this more seriously.”

As the weblog Echidne Of The Snakes has noted, this isn't Monday-morning quarterbacking by the Times-Picayune; the paper reported about the consequences of budget cuts on the levees in June 2004:

For the first time in 37 years, federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees, a complex network of concrete walls, metal gates and giant earthen berms that won't be finished for at least another decade.

“I guess people look around and think there's a complete system in place, that we're just out here trying to put icing on the cake,” said Mervin Morehiser, who manages the “Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity” levee project for the Army Corps of Engineers. “And we aren't saying that the sky is falling, but people should know that this is a work in progress, and there's more important work yet to do before there is a complete system in place.”

The Chicago Tribune added on September 1:

Despite continuous warnings that a catastrophic hurricane could hit New Orleans, the Bush administration and Congress in recent years have repeatedly denied full funding for hurricane preparation and flood control.

That has delayed construction of levees around the city and stymied an ambitious project to improve drainage in New Orleans' neighborhoods.

For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested $27 million for this fiscal year to pay for hurricane-protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain. The Bush administration countered with $3.9 million, and Congress eventually provided $5.7 million, according to figures provided by the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Because of the shortfalls, which were caused in part by the rising costs of the war in Iraq, the corps delayed seven contracts that included enlarging the levees, according to corps documents.

Much of the devastation in New Orleans was caused by breaches in the levees, which sent water from Lake Pontchartrain pouring into the city. Since much of the city is below sea level, the levee walls acted like the walls of a bowl that filled until as much as 80 percent of the city was under water.

Similarly, the Army Corps requested $78 million for this fiscal year for projects that would improve draining and prevent flooding in New Orleans. The Bush administration's budget provided $30 million for the projects, and Congress ultimately approved $36.5 million, according to Landrieu's office.

“I'm not saying it wouldn't still be flooded, but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have,” said Michael Parker, a former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from October 2001 until March 2002, when he was ousted after publicly criticizing a Bush administration proposal to cut the corps' budget.

But while the Chicago Tribune reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was denied the funding it requested to enlarge levees and protect New Orleans from hurricanes and flooding; while a Republican congressman said that additional resources could have prevented some of the damage; and while the New Orleans Times-Picayune concluded that “No one can say they didn't see it coming” ... the president did just that.

On the September 1 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, President Bush acted as though the breach of the levees was an unforeseeable fluke occurrence: “I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.”

But, as news reports in the Tribune, Times-Picayune and elsewhere made clear, plenty of people did anticipate the breech. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, wanted to enlarge levees and improve drainage. But it couldn't, because the Bush administration and Congress didn't give it the money it needed.

So when Bush told ABC's Diane Sawyer during an exclusive interview (video here) that nobody could have “anticipated the breach of the levees,” surely she challenged him on his claim? Surely she said, “Wait a minute, Mr. President: the Army Corps of Engineers wanted more money to prevent exactly that. They must have anticipated something. The New Orleans Times-Picayune concluded yesterday that 'No one can say they didn't see it coming.' A former Republican congressman who headed the Corps of Engineers in your own administration lost his job after he publicly criticized your efforts to cut the Corps' budget. How can you say nobody saw this coming?”

But instead, Sawyer simply moved on to her next question:

SAWYER: And in fact Mr. President, this morning, as we speak, as you say, there are people with signs saying help, come get me. People still in the attic, waving. Nurses are phoning in saying the situation in hospitals is getting ever more dire, that the nurses are getting sick now because of no clean water. And some of the things they have asked our correspondents to ask you, they expected, they say to us, that the day after this hurricane that there would be a massive and visible armada of federal support. There would be boats coming in. There would be food, there would be water. And it would be there within hours. They wondered what's taking so long.

BUSH: Well, there's a lot of food on its way, a lot of water on the way, and there's a lot of boats and choppers headed that way. Boats and choppers headed that way. It takes a while to float them. For example, [the USS] Iwo Jima is coming from the East Coast of the United States toward New Orleans. And people have got to know that there is a massive relief -- the most -- most massive federal relief effort ever in combination with state and local authorities. And there's a lot of help coming.

SAWYER: But given the fact that everyone anticipated a hurricane [Category] Five, a possible hurricane Five hitting shore, are you satisfied with the pace at which this is arriving? And at which it was planned to arrive?

BUSH: Well, I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the -- anxiety of people on the ground. I can imagine -- I just can't imagine what it's like to be waving a sign that says, “Come and get me now.” So there is frustration. But I want people to know there is a lot of help coming. I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm. But these levees got breached, and as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded. And now we are having to deal with it and will.

SAWYER: A couple of quick questions about the concerns. ...

Later in the interview, Sawyer mentioned that “there was worry about the levees breaking ... years before” -- but she did it as a throwaway non sequitur, without challenging Bush's false claim, and without asking him to address that fact:

BUSH: I'm not expecting much from foreign nations because we haven't asked for it. I do suspect a lot of sympathy and perhaps some will send cash dollars. But this country -- this country is going to rise up and take care of it. You know, we'd love help. But we're going to take care of our own business as well. And there's no doubt in my mind we'll succeed. And there's no doubt in my mind, as I sit here talking to you, that New Orleans is going to rise up again as a great city. It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of effort. But this is a compassionate nation. It's a lot of resources at its disposal. And we're going to help those people.

SAWYER: There was worry about the levees breaking, as we know, years before. And replacing New Orleans in a situation where you have to have massive expenditures in order to protect it. Do you want to see it in the same place?

In its online article about the interview, ABC News completely ignored Bush's false and self-serving claim that nobody anticipated the breach.

A September 1 New York Times editorial noted:

The nation will soon ask why New Orleans's levees remained so inadequate. Publications from the local newspaper to National Geographic have fulminated about the bad state of flood protection in this beloved city, which is below sea level. Why were developers permitted to destroy wetlands and barrier islands that could have held back the hurricane's surge? Why was Congress, before it wandered off to vacation, engaged in slashing the budget for correcting some of the gaping holes in the area's flood protection?

The nation may indeed ask these questions. It's too bad Diane Sawyer didn't when she had the chance.

But Sawyer wasn't alone in ignoring shortcomings in the Bush administration's preparation for, and response to, the hurricane. A Washington Post editorial applauded the administration:

So far, the federal government's immediate response to the destruction of one of the nation's most historic cities does seem commensurate with the scale of the disaster. At an unprecedented news conference, many members of President Bush's Cabinet pledged to dedicate huge resources to the Gulf Coast.

It isn't clear what was “unprecedented” about the news conference -- or why it didn't occur until August 31, two days after the hurricane hit New Orleans. Nor is it clear why the Post would praise the government's response to Katrina; an effective response to predictable damage done by a hurricane would seem to include adequate preparation for such a disaster -- preparation that the Post itself suggests was subpar:

But over the longer term, it will be extremely important to better understand the causes of this long-predicted disaster and to determine what, if anything, could have prevented it. This administration has consistently played down the possibility of environmental disaster, in Louisiana and everywhere else. The president's most recent budgets have actually proposed reducing funding for flood prevention in the New Orleans area, and the administration has long ignored Louisiana politicians' requests for more help in protecting their fragile coast, the destruction of which meant there was little to slow down the hurricane before it hit the city. It is inappropriate to “blame” anyone for a natural disaster. But given how frequently the impact of this one was predicted, and given the scale of the economic and human catastrophe that has resulted, it is certainly fair to ask questions about disaster preparations. Congress, when it returns, should rise above the blame game and instead probe the state of the nation's preparation for handling major natural catastrophes, particularly those that threaten crucial regions of the country.

There are people dying in the streets of New Orleans -- people without food, without water, without shelter, without medical attention; thousands of people suffering, in the richest nation in the history of the world; people suffering, in part, because funding for levees that could have lessened the devastation, people suffering, in part, because days after the hurricane struck New Orleans, neither food, nor water, nor medical supplies, nor evacuation vehicles have arrived. People are suffering and dying because a nation that can send a man to the moon can't send doctors and food and water to New Orleans -- and The Washington Post calls the government's response “commensurate with the scale of the disaster” and praises an “unprecedented news conference.” News conferences, with or without precedent, are nice -- but the people in New Orleans don't need news conferences. They need food, they need water, and they need medical treatment.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan pretends everything is OK, claiming, despite all available evidence, that "[t]here are ways for them to get that [food and water] help." That doesn't seem to be the case, no matter how much McClellan and the Post want us to think things are going smoothly.

Rich Lowry and his colleagues at National Review Online's group weblog, The Corner, seem to get it:

Right now, the entire country is watching a great American city collapsing into hopeless devastation, and if there IS a Federal response going on it is barely visible. Government has got to move here.

Why doesn't The Washington Post's editorial board?

The Plamegate question nobody's asking: Why did Time magazine deceive readers about Rove's involvement?

As Media Matters detailed this week, Time magazine published an article co-written by Washington bureau chief Michael Duffy and reporter Matt Cooper in October 2003 that strongly suggested that Karl Rove had nothing to do with outing Valerie Plame, and quoted White House press secretary Scott McClellan flatly denying Rove's involvement.

There was only one problem: Cooper and Duffy knew that was false. They knew that Karl Rove was involved; knew that the article they co-wrote misled readers and presented without contradiction a McClellan quote they knew to be inaccurate. They knew this because Cooper himself learned from Karl Rove in July 2003 that Plame worked for the CIA.

While Time did everything they could to protect Karl Rove, the magazine did nothing to protect its readers; instead, it actively misled them. Defenders of Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller frequently talk of the duty a reporter has to protect his or her sources, but shouldn't protecting their readers -- by not penning articles they know to be misleading -- be their first priority?

And yet, according to the Los Angeles Times, Time didn't seek a waiver from Rove allowing Cooper to testify to the grand jury, in part, because “Time editors were concerned about becoming part of such an explosive story in an election year.” But Time was part of the story -- and they took sides in it. By choosing to protect Rove, and by extension Bush, and by choosing to mislead readers in order to do so, Time took sides. Intentionally or not, the magazine took Bush's side in the election; it took Rove's side over its readers' -- and it took the side of lies and deception over truth.