Where is media outrage over purported government attempts to restrict Katrina coverage?


A September 7 Reuters article reported that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) "asked the media not to take pictures of those killed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath" and "refused to take reporters and photographers along on boats seeking victims in flooded areas." FEMA's actions, along with further reports that the government is obstructing journalists in New Orleans, have drawn little attention -- and even less outrage -- from the very media institutions that the agency, part of the Bush administration, seeks to repress. Media Matters for America wonders: What will it take for the media to protest (or at least report) the Bush administration's efforts to control them?

According to the Reuters article, free speech watchdog groups, such as PEN American Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, decried FEMA's purported actions as "simply mind-boggling." Reuters quoted Tom Rosenstiel, director of Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism, describing FEMA's decision as "an invitation to chaos," and claiming it "is about managing images and not public taste or human dignity." Reuters said that FEMA's purported attempts to restrict photographs of Katrina victims "is in line with the Bush administration's ban on images of flag-draped U.S. military coffins returning from the Iraq war." In a September 8 Philadelphia Inquirer column, television columnist Gail Shister quoted Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy: " 'I think they want to minimize the perception that the government didn't do its job,' says Jones, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner. 'I'm very suspicious of their motives.' " Editor & Publisher also noted FEMA's actions and the reactions of journalist groups in a September 8 article.

A FEMA spokeswoman defended the policy, telling Reuters, "The recovery of victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect and we have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media." Shister reported that, according to FEMA representative Mark Pfeifle, "FEMA has no official policy on photographing bodies," but "advise[s] against the practice out of respect for the families of dead and missing loved ones." Shister further wrote: "Also, FEMA needs space in its boats for rescuers and recovered bodies, he says." (As noted on the weblog War and Piece, Pfeifle was also a Bush-Cheney '04 campaign spokesman, and headed a Social Security "war room" created within the Treasury Department in March, according to The Washington Post.)

Thus far, coverage of FEMA's purported attempts at media control has been relegated to brief reports within newspapers or passing mentions on TV news programs. In addition to the publications mentioned above, as of this posting, the Reuters article has been published on the Houston Chronicle's website and in the September 8 edition of The Washington Post -- on page C8 of its "Style" section. On September 7, the Los Angeles Times devoted four sentences to FEMA's decision, while the September 7 New York Times allotted it three sentences on page A20. On the September 7 editions of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews and The Situation with Tucker Carlson, NBC news correspondent David Shuster mentioned in passing that the "Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the media not to photograph the dead." In a September 7 CBS Evening News report, correspondent Lee Cowan noted simply that "FEMA asked us not to show how its crews removed bodies out of this nursing home, but suffice it to say, it was horrific."

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass touched on FEMA's purported restrictions in a September 8 op-ed, writing: "Politics is at the bottom of it, since he [President Bush] has been blamed, either fairly or unfairly, for the weak federal response." Rocky Mountain News columnist Vincent Carroll defended FEMA's position as "reflecting the opinion of a wide swath of Americans who squirm when they see news pictures of the dead and consider them a concession to vulgar voyeurism." The Baltimore Sun editorialized on the purported policy on September 8, writing: "[I]t smacks not of concern for the feelings of survivors or the sensibility of readers, but of a desire to cover up the bad news."

The nature and extent of FEMA's purported restrictions is in dispute. As Reuters noted, the FEMA spokeswoman said the agency has "requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media." And FEMA has refused to take reporters and photographers on boats, which the agency said was for reasons of space. Neither action alone establishes an official effort to restrict coverage. In a September 8 column, Denver Post television critic Joanne Ostrow quoted CNN president Jonathan Klein saying, "None of our people have encountered this." Ostrow wrote: " 'Our role is to show the reality,' said MSNBC executive Mark Effron. 'We are showing bodies but not in close-ups. Our correspondents and videographers have conveyed the sense of horror without close-ups.' " It is not clear from Ostrow's quotation of Effron if the MSNBC executive addressed whether FEMA had restricted MSNBC reporters and photographers, but Effron seemed to suggest that restrictions on photographing Katrina victims are self-imposed.

Though Rosenstiel is critical of FEMA, he suggested, according to Shister, that FEMA's actions do not pose an outright impediment to media coverage of FEMA's recovery efforts: "While the government can control media access to Dover [Air Force Base in Delaware, where American casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan return to the U.S.], it cannot prevent journalists in New Orleans from following FEMA's boats in their own vessels during recovery missions, says Rosenstiel, whose organization is associated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism."

But at least one journalist on the ground in New Orleans has reported a very different situation from that described or implied by Klein, Pfeifle, and Rosenstiel. NBC anchor and managing editor Brian Williams noted in his weblog that journalists are being forcibly prevented from covering certain aspects of the Katrina disaster:

While we were attempting to take pictures of the National Guard (a unit from Oklahoma) taking up positions outside a Brooks Brothers on the edge of the [French] Quarter, the sergeant ordered us to the other side of the boulevard. The short version is: there won't be any pictures of this particular group of Guard soldiers on our newscast tonight. Rules (or I suspect in this case an order on a whim) like those do not HELP the palpable feeling that this area is somehow separate from the United States.

At that same fire scene, a police officer from out of town raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media ... obvious members of the media ... armed only with notepads. Her actions (apparently because she thought reporters were encroaching on the scene) were over the top and she was told. ... Someone else points out on television as I post this: the fact that the National Guard now bars entry (by journalists) to the very places where people last week were barred from LEAVING (The Convention Center and Superdome) is a kind of perverse and perfectly backward postscript to this awful chapter in American history.

Assuming Williams's experience isn't unique among journalists -- and his description suggests it is not -- where is the media outrage? Where is the media's sense of responsibility to the public, at least to let them know what they are and are not being told? And why hasn't Williams mentioned the incidents in his on-air reporting from New Orleans?

Posted In
Environment & Science
Hurricane Katrina, Media Ethics
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