Thursday, November 10, 2005

Did The Times Picayune's Editors Buckle Under Pressure?

Is there any logical explanation for what happened to the editorial staff of the T/P this past September? In a Sept.4th open letter to the president they wrote:
Lies don't get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.
Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You're doing a heck of a job."
That's unbelievable
, but in the Sept. 18th editorial (about the President's much maligned Jackson Square speech) we read:"To bring relief to an afflicted region, the president offered a number of substantive proposals" and "Nevertheless, the considerable reach of President Bush’s proposals suggests that he recognizes not just the scale of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina but also the vital importance of rebuilding the Gulf Coast."

Did the editors get a memo in early september? Did they turn into pod people, as Bob Somerby might say? Could be that they were just following the pack, as by mid-September the national press had largely swallowed the White House line that the city and state were responsible for the disaster. Still, the fact that national reaction to the President's speech was at best mixed leads me to think that they felt some pressure to write an upbeat editorial. I don't claim to have any idea rather that pressure was direct from Newhouse or the result of an internalized fear of alienating conservative voters, but the paper's focus clearly shifted.

For whatever reason, after the first week of September, The T/P avoided criticizing the Bush administration until Marty Bahamonde's testimony forced the issue in October. Instead the editors focused on state and parish governments. That focus would be expected in a local newspaper, but the T/P had become a national paper, a widely praised national paper that seemed to love the attention. More importantly, it shifted its focus just when the national media seemed to be buying Republican efforts (described in my Nov. 1st post) to blame the Katrina tragedy on the state and city.

Of course, a newspaper shouldn't be an arm of the local chamber of commerce and no one would expect the T/P to be as shamelessly boosterish as the Anchorage Daily News, but there were a lot of mistaken "facts" out there that the T/P should have refuted. He said/she said journalism doesn't work when the administration is putting out disinformation about Louisiana officials who can't respond because they're asking the administration for help. As Josh Marshall pointed out the Post and Newsweek both ran rather lame corrections, but I think the entire liberal blogosphere missed the fact that Tim Russert repeated the same RNC talking point twice on the Sept. 11 Meet the Press. When he twice (in a question to Mayor Nagin) said that The President declared a state of emergency on Sept 26, he was technically accurate, but he forgot to mention that this was in response to Gov. Blanco's request. To my knowledge, Mr. Russert has yet to clarify this comment and the national media in general did less to dispell the myth that Blanco was late in requesting aid than it did to propagate it. As for as the local media, Ms. Beyerstein's heroes at the Picayune did less to dispell this myth than the apolitical urban legends website.

There were other misconceptions around that the local media did little to dispell. Warning time is perhaps the most important, especially as it relates to the famous photos of flooded busses. That's a long enough subject for a separate post and reporters from other regions could be expected to get it wrong. However, the local media remained silent, even in the face of claims that New Orleans had five days warning that a major category four or five hurricane was coming (O.K.that was on Fox).

The sad fact is the Bush Administration and GOP leadership were successfully slandering the state and the city (not just the governor and the mayor) in the national press and the local paper failed to set the record straight. This is not to say that the T/P should have been an advocate for the city, but it neglected to use its national forum to address obvious distortions. Even though he said/she said journalism is the current norm, it obviously can't work when the slandered or at the mercy of the slanderers. Had Marty Bahamonde's testimony not put the administration on the defensive and other events not changed the media's focus, who knows how ugly it would have gotten. Instead of basking in its accolades, The Times Picayune should be ashamed.

This would all be water under the bridge, except for the fact that the Katrina commission has yet to finish its investigation and billions in reconstruction money is yet to be allocated. One would have to be naive not to expect things to get ugly again. Will The Times Picayune, and now Gambit Weekly, perform any better next time?

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