Less than five years after George W. Bush wrecked his presidency through his limp response to a natural disaster in Louisiana, Barack Obama has escaped largely unscathed from his similarly feckless response to a man-made disaster in precisely the same part of the country. Republicans have gained scant traction for their attempts to tag the massive oil spill off the Louisiana coast as “Obama’s Katrina.” Is this a clear-cut case of media bias, or an appropriate contrast in press coverage of two very different calamities?
In one of the few prominent criticisms of Obama’s crisis management, the New York Times explicitly acknowledged a resemblance between the bumbling reaction of the Obama and the Bush administrations to their respective Gulf Coast catastrophes. In a stinging May 1st editorial, the nation’s Journal of Record declared that “the administration should not have waited, and should have intervened much more quickly on its own initiative… The timetable is damning….What we do know is that we now face a huge disaster whose consequences might have been minimized with swifter action.”
Nevertheless, neither the Times nor its counterparts in mainstream media followed up aggressively in emphasizing the administration’s incompetence for one principal reason: the lack of televised imagery showing human victims. The loss of the eleven oil company workers who perished in the first moments of the crisis could hardly be blamed on President Obama, who couldn’t possibly rescue people from the path of a disaster that struck with no warning. By contrast, Bush critics insist that the president had plenty of notice to remove Gulf Coast residents from the path of an onrushing hurricane. Legitimate GOP efforts to blame mistakes on the utterly inept Democratic authorities in the City of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana worked less effectively than Obama administration attempts to pin primary responsibility on the petroleum company, BP. Gulf Coast officials, no matter how bumbling, remained more sympathetic than the big, bad (and British) petroleum Company.