Friday, February 17, 2006

56 hours and $85 billion

So the Katrina Commission report (lengthy pdf.) says that the state and city had adequate warning 56 hrs before landfall. That 56hr. claim wouldn't be objectionable in and of itself, one could reasonably say that the state had anywhere from 50 to 56 hrs advance warning. I'll go into more detail about the report after I've had more time to thoroughly go over it. At a quick glance I found it odd that Mississippi and Alabama were praised for issuing mandatory evacuation orders on Aug. 28, while Louisiana was criticized for waiting until the 28th (I know, you could object that that's too facile a criticism, but there's a counter objection. more later). By my reckoning, the state had 50hrs notice. The difference in 50 and 56 isn't major, although when you're talking 72hrs evacuation time, it matters. But the point is that, with the same party controlling all three branches of the federal government, we can expect any federal reports to the use the estimates that best make the feds look good. In this case, it's obvious where making the state look bad might be in Washington's interest. The point though, isn't who was at fault; I was getting to a broader point about any numbers that we get from Washington.

If the 56hr figure is merely a case of cherry picking figures, the $85B goes beyond that--almost to the point of making stuff up. So why am I bringing up stuff that every blogger in town (esp. da po'blog) has been over, and that the Times Picayune has finally caught on to? Well for one thing, I suspect that the $85B which is padded right off the top (in addition to the other padding) by $18.5 in flood insurance costs, will soon be $100B padded by $24B*. Today's T/P article on the new aid request only gave a partial breakdown of the new $19B.

Also, if you look at the stories that do mention the fact that flood insurance payments are being counted as aid, you'll see that, in each case, it's buried several paragraphs into the piece, links here, here, and here. That might be my own personal quibble, the stories do detail all the ways in which the aid figure is overstated. That's just the problem, the national media had already noticed the ways in which the $67B figure might be overstated, and apparently decided it was just a minor argument over details. By including the flood insurance with the other questionable aid figures, the T/P (and the national media almost certainly pays attention to the Picayune's Katrina coverage) gives it the appearance of being just another wonkish detail. In fact, padding the aid figure with flood insurance payments went beyond being just another exaggeration, to being an act of pure chutzpah. Or it should have required some chutzpah, but the administration new that La. officials couldn't really get bogged down in that argument and it also knew that it could rely on the rules of he said/she said reporting to keep the press from taking the initiative in questioning its figures.

I can still remember my jaw dropping when I first heard Bush toss out the $85B figure (I thought he said $86B at the time). To me it was that noticeable. Prior to that speech, even some national commentators had observed that, in this case, $62B and $29B only added up to $67B, and that the $67B wasn't all exactly aid. But that extra $18B (I thought 19B) bothered me enough to go through some light mental gymnastics. Other bloggers noticed it, and it didn't take da po'blog long to figure out where the extra money came from. That's why I wonder why it took the T/P so long to show any notice.

Not to suggest that a bunch of Keystone reporters work on Howard Avenue, or that the T/P should pay some local bloggers a finder's fee (it would be nice, though), but when reporter's don't ask obvious questions it's similar to dogs not barking. In the past I thought it might have been corporate pressure or fear of the dreaded liberal bias charge rather than mere incompetence at work. I think it probably has more to do with he said/she said journalism and the fact that local papers don't want to appear to be home town boosters. However, it still leads me to repeat some points that I've made before, but this time I'll try bold print:

This administration and its congressional allies go way beyond selective presentation of facts--almost to the point of making stuff up.

State and local officials are really not in a position to refute most of the false or distorted claims of federal officials.

Because of the above, the drawbacks of he said/she said reporting are mutiplied in the case of Katrina coverage.

While Katrina and rebuiding are national issues, the Times Picayune is, to some degree, a national paper. To a lesser degree that could be said of the local media in general.


Because of the above, I do think that it's incumbent on the local media to point out (to really point out,not just say "critics say") that including flood insurance payments as aid goes beyond the usual spin to being an act of brazen distortion. It would also make the seemingly wonkish debate over how much of the rest of the aid is actually aid seem a lot less wonkish.

*update 2/18: I see from da po'blog that increased funding for for the NFIP was less than originally expected. It's still the most obvious example of the padded figure. And I still expect to hear terms like "bottomless pit" or "100 billion dollar rathole."

Comments:
A post truly worthy of reading. Thanks. Glenda
 
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