Persistent amnesia: ABC's Vargas, MSNBC's O'Donnell ignored Bush levee comment


ABC World News Tonight anchor Elizabeth Vargas failed to note the apparent conflict between a newly released videotape that shows President Bush receiving a warning that New Orleans levees could be topped and Bush's later comment that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." MSNBC chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell similarly failed to note this contradiction during an interview with deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy.

On the March 1 edition of ABC's World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas reported the release of a videotape that shows President Bush, on the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, receiving warnings from National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield that the New Orleans levees could be "topped," which he said was "obviously a very, very grave concern." The video appears to contradict Bush's claim, made two days after the storm, that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." But Vargas failed to note this conflict in her report. MSNBC chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell similarly failed to note this contradiction during a March 2 interview with deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy.

The videotapes released by the Associated Press also show further evidence that contradicts Bush's September 1 claim: that he had indeed been warn about the threat to the levee system posted by Katrina, and that Bush reportedly expressed concern about the levees breaching while the hurricane battered New Orleans. As reported in a March 2 New York Times article, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown stated at a August 29, 2005, midday videoconference that "he had spoken with President Bush twice in the morning and that the president was asking about reports that the levees had been breached."

Vargas and O'Donnell joined a growing number of journalists who seem to have entirely forgotten about Bush's September 1 statement that the levee breaches were completely unexpected. CNN's Fredricka Whitfield interviewed Duffy on March 2, and she too made no mention of the conflict. Further, numerous major newspapers failed to address this issue in their March 2 coverage of this story, as Media Matters for America noted.

From the March 1 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:

VARGAS: We learned more today about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The Associated Press has released a videotape showing video conferences that included President Bush and then-FEMA director Michael Brown one day before Katrina struck. During the conference, Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center makes a dramatic warning.

MAYFIELD: I don't think anyone can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not. But that's obviously a very, very grave concern.

VARGAS: President Bush assured officials on the video conference tape that the government was fully prepared.

From the March 2 edition of MSNBC News Live:

O'DONNELL: Let me ask you about these new tapes that are out that show the president saying the day before Katrina struck, "We are fully prepared." In hindsight, were we fully prepared?

DUFFY: Well, Norah, as the president said, that he wasn't satisfied at the federal level. We pre-positioned more manpower and materiel and medicine before the storm than -- in Katrina -- than we did for any other storm in our history. It turned out not to be enough, and the president said -- and he was the first to take personal responsibility for that fact.

O'DONNELL: You at the White House, and others at the Department of Homeland Security have tried to make the case, "Look, there is nothing new on these tapes." And yet, we get to see federal officials issuing these very dire warnings to the president, and yet, at the end of this briefing, the president doesn't ask a single question. Why wasn't he more engaged?

DUFFY: Well, Norah, I completely reject that. The president knew this was a very devastating and deadly storm, which is why on August 28th he went before the news cameras -- and I'm not seeing a lot of this tape being aired on any networks -- but the president on August 28th, before the landfall, said to the American people and to the citizens of the Gulf Coast, this is a devastating and dangerous hurricane and please move to safe ground. He then took the extraordinary step of signing emergency disaster declarations ahead of landfall so that we could do the pre-positioning necessary, and finally, he took part in the urging state and local officials to do a mandatory evacuation.

O'DONNELL: Is there a political concern now at the White House? I mean, you have to defend this now. The president is once again put in the spotlight of how he handled hurricane Katrina. This is in the wake of the Harriet Miers nomination, the NSA spying, the Dubai port deal. The Democrats are making the case that this is an administration that is out of touch and lacks competence.

DUFFY: Well, I think the Democrats, next thing they will suggest is that we created Hurricane Katrina in the kitchen and launched it on the U.S. I totally reject that argument. The president was very well engaged, and again, Norah, what we're focused on is working to help the people in the Gulf Coast. All this is great theater. But in the bottom line, at the very end, what matters most is helping people rebuild their homes and their lives. We have $100 billion headed to the Gulf Coast. It's the right thing to do, and we need to focus right now on rebuilding the Gulf Coast and helping this vital portion of America get back on its feet.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy
Norah O'Donnell, Elizabeth Vargas
MSNBC Live, ABC World News Tonight
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
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