Wash. Post article on Katrina's political effect quoted only Republicans, obscured Democratic criticism of Bush's recovery efforts


In an August 26 Washington Post article exploring the political effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Bush administration, Jonathan Weisman and Michael Abramowitz uncritically reported the GOP claim that public opinion of Bush's handling of the crisis has rebounded over the past year, ignoring recent polling showing otherwise. Further, they repeated the White House assertion that Bush now has a "strong story to tell" about his recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast but failed to quote a single Democrat in response.

In an August 26 Washington Post article exploring the political effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Bush administration, staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Michael Abramowitz uncritically reported two dubious Republican assertions: that public opinion of Bush's handling of the crisis has rebounded over the past year and that he now has a "strong story to tell" about his recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. But Weisman and Abramowitz ignored recent polling showing no improvement in Bush's approval rating on Katrina since the weeks after the storm. Further, they failed to quote a single Democrat in the article, despite a recently released report by Democratic congressional leaders detailing what they described as the consequences for Gulf coast residents of "a failed Republican response marked by unfulfilled promises, cronyism, waste, fraud, and abuse."

In the article -- "Katrina's Damage Lingers For Bush" -- Weisman and Abramowitz reported that, "according to pollsters, pundits and Republican politicians ... the winds of Katrina may have been the force that finally wrenched the Bush presidency off its moorings." They quoted numerous Republicans criticizing the White House's handling of the crisis and commenting on the political challenges that resulted from it: Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-NC) said that Katrina "undermined" Bush's reputation as an able leader; Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) described the crisis as "a break in the levee of political goodwill and the Teflon coating that the administration had been enjoying up to then"; Rep. Jim McCrery (R-LA) complained about the images of Bush "joshing amid the devastation"; White House counselor Dan Bartlett referred to the storm as a "setback"; and Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) was even quoted criticizing Bush for failing to integrate "free-market principles" into the reconstruction process. But the article also included assertions by most of these Republican figures that Bush has regained substantial ground in the year since Katrina made landfall. Weisman and Abramowitz reported McCrery's assessment that "[i]n Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, Bush's efforts have made a difference, both in rebuilding the region and in restoring his credibility." They quoted McHenry saying, "He has rebounded in one year's time from what he lost in one week's time," although the process of rebounding "is not complete." And though Bartlett called the Katrina response a "setback at the time," he added that "it was recoverable and has been."

Weisman and Abramowitz proceeded to quote Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, arguing that the Katrina response "had a big impact on how people look at" Bush. They also quoted Gallup Poll editor in chief Frank Newport doubting the existence of any "Katrina effect" on Bush's overall approval rating. But while Weisman and Abramowitz did cite an ABC News/Washington Post poll from March finding that "63 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of Katrina," they ignored a fact that specifically rebuts Republican claims of a rebound: the percentage of Americans who disapprove of Bush's handling of Katrina has not declined over the past year, according to two recent polls:

  • An August 17-21 CBS/New York Times poll found that 51 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Bush "is responding to the needs of people affected by Hurricane Katrina," compared to 48 percent disapproval in a poll conducted September 9-13, 2005.
  • An August 18-20 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 56 percent of respondents disapproved of the way Bush "is handling the problems caused by Hurricane Katrina," compared to 54 percent disapproval in a poll conducted September 8-11, 2005.

In keeping with the Republican narrative that Bush's dedication to the reconstruction process this year has helped him rebound, Weisman and Abramowitz further reported the White House's claim that Bush "has learned from the Katrina mistakes" and now "has a strong story to tell" about the government's recovery efforts in the region:

The president will appear Monday and Tuesday on the Gulf Coast to mark the first anniversary of the hurricane. To the White House, the president has a strong story to tell: approval of more than $110 billion in resources for the Gulf region, 12 previous visits to the region by Bush and 82 by members of his Cabinet, the restoration of more than 220 miles of New Orleans's flood walls and levees, the floodproofing of pumping stations, and the addition of floodgates to protect against storm surges.

Bush aides said the president will accept responsibility for the botched federal response while stressing that the government has learned from the Katrina mistakes and promising to see through the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.

Weisman and Abramowitz went on to note that, "in the early days," Democrats criticized the failures of both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Bush administration at large, leading the administration to "placate those critics with a shower of financial support." Yet, they depicted the criticism of Bush's subsequent reconstruction efforts as coming solely from the right:

It was not only the slow, ineffectual response to the initial devastation that was responsible for the decline, critics and supporters say, but also the policy initiatives that came later. Urban Democrats and minorities, already prone to dislike Bush, focused on FEMA's botched relief efforts in the early days. But as the White House moved to placate those critics with a shower of financial support, the administration began alienating many Republicans, who wanted to use the disaster to turn the Gulf Coast into a showcase for conservative ideas.

As the weblog AMERICABlog.com noted, Weisman and Abramowitz failed to quote a single Democrat in the article. In doing so, they left the false impression that, while Republicans criticized Bush during the rebuilding process for not implementing more "conservative ideas," the Bush administration was making progress in "placat[ing]" Democrats.

To the contrary, Democrats have assailed the reconstruction efforts as anything but "strong." On August 23, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) released a report titled "Broken Promises: The Republican Response to Katrina." The 18-page document offers a scathing review of the Bush administration's performance in the year since Katrina hit the Gulf Coast:

In the aftermath of the disaster, President Bush and congressional Republicans made many promises to the desperate residents of the region, but most have been broken. Largely as a result, much of the Gulf Coast remains devastated, and residents continue to suffer from inadequate housing, health care and other basic services, and an infrastructure that cannot support badly needed economic development. The Administration has also failed to apply the lessons we've learned to their future disaster planning, leaving the country unprepared for another major disaster. Further compounding matters, the Federal government's response has been fraught with breathtaking levels of waste, fraud, and abuse, the likes of which are unprecedented in our nation's history.

Following are some of the report's findings:

  • Thousands of families are still waiting for FEMA trailers.
  • An estimated 11 percent of the $19 billion that has been spent by FEMA -- or $2 billion -- has been waste, fraud, and abuse.
  • Eighty percent of Gulf Coast businesses with approved SBA [Small Business Administration] disaster loans are still waiting to get their loans.
  • The Republican Congress didn't enact needed housing money for homeowners in Louisiana until June, 10 months after Katrina -- and the money has still failed to reach these homeowners.
  • Only three of the 10 acute-care hospitals in New Orleans have re-opened; the only public hospital, Charity, has still not re-opened.
  • Only 56 of 128 public schools in New Orleans are enrolling students this fall.
The Washington Post
Hurricane Katrina
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