WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With Hurricane Rita battering the Gulf Coast and the Lone Star State, there is no doubt what the top story and the headlines are going to be about for the next several days. After the storm passes, the question remains -- how many relevant facts will be in the stories that follow? If Katrina is any indication, the real challenge will begin in the immediate aftermath of the tempest.
In this era of hand-portable cameras, miniature satellite uplinks and live broadcasts, television is the "instant medium." Whether it's a hurricane, sporting event, a Congressional hearing or a war, no other form of mass communication covers an incident "as it happens" better than cable television. Today, viewers can see "through the lens" what's occurring -- as it occurs. But the images are fleeting, memories are short -- and after the "live shot" cameras are gone, it is all too tempting for polemicists to use the "footage" and photos for their own purposes.
The Katrina coverage by the so-called mainstream media -- both print and broadcast -- is a remarkable example. The major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS all sent crews to the Gulf Coast as Katrina closed in. But only the cable news channels -- led by my employer, FOX News -- went to "wall-to-wall" coverage of the approaching storm -- and stayed with it 24/7. The older, larger and theoretically more experienced standard broadcast networks decided to stick with their regular programming and covered the storm -- along with its disastrous consequences -- on their newscasts and occasional updates as a story that needed "perspective." The assumption being perhaps that the "cable kids" were too "close" to the story.
The results should have been anticipated. While FOX News and other cable outlets sought out Coast Guard and other first responders heroically rescuing those who did not or could not evacuate, the "Big Three" descended on local politicians to start fixing blame. Cable camera crews documented the catastrophe at the Superdome as it occurred, the looting as it was happening, the breakdown of law and order while it was ongoing. Though these same images were available to ABC, CBS and NBC, their general approach was to re-broadcast the footage and "wrap" it in a political patina in order to give "depth" to the story.
There had to be someone to blame for this disaster -- and the logical target for most of the big broadcasters, newspapers and magazines became the Bush Administration. While the water was still rising in New Orleans and people on the Mississippi coast were pawing through the wreckage of their demolished homes and businesses, the blame-game began in the mainstream media's quest for relevance.
Less than twenty four hours after wind and rain stopped, the major networks, wire-services and newspapers were trotting out global-warming experts to show how the Bush administration's approach to the Kyoto Protocol had given birth to mega-storms like Katrina. Members of Congress went on the air to accuse George Bush of cutting funds for levee repair and maintenance -- thus precipitating the catastrophic failure of the walls holding back the water. Emergency preparedness experts from previous administrations pontificated that FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- had been undercut in the Bush reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were provided with grandstands to accuse the Bush administration of racism in failing to protect New Orleans. In short -- just like the Global War on Terror -- all the news is bad -- and it's all the fault of George W. Bush.
In fact, the Katrina coverage has closely paralleled the way the war in Iraq has been reported. In March of 2003, there were more than 700 embedded correspondents who accompanied U.S. and coalition forces in the swift victory over Saddam. No matter what the political views of the person holding the camera or the network broadcasting the image -- the courage, compassion and decency of the American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines sent into the fight was undeniable. As with Katrina, FOX News and the cable networks dominated the coverage.
But shortly after Saddam's statue crashed to the ground in Baghdad's Firdos Square, most of the cable camera crews came home and the mainstream media took over once again. Writing their stories and broadcasting from the balconies of air-conditioned hotels, "wiser heads" offered a different perspective on the war.
The war was all wrong, we were told. Iraqis who hated America were brought forth to describe how they were better off under Saddam. Terrorists who behead innocent hostages became "freedom fighters." And to prove that our troops really weren't "good," the potentates of the press beat Abu Ghraib like a rented mule for months. Once the cable cameras were gone, all the news was bad. New schools, clean water, more electricity, elections, a democratic constitution -- none of that matters. According to the "experts," every casualty is Bush's fault -- and the only answer is to get out now.
"Get out now," of course, was the message broadcast to the people in the path of both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It's a good plan when a potentially devastating storm is bearing down. It's a terrible idea once the maelstrom hits -- or in the midst of a war. Unfortunately, that seems to be the mainstream media's only message to President Bush.