Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Not So Fast With That Pulitzer

Considering its reputation around here,I can't have been the only local who was amazed at the overwhelming praise that The Times Picayune received from the national media and on the internet in the month following Katrina. It was praised all over both the print and broadcast media and, in the blogosphere, it was praised by everyone from instapundit to Lindsay Beyerstain of Majikthise who said "The T/P staff are my heros. They are living the ideals American journalism(in her defense, she did add that she didn't get to meet any of them)." Hard to believe this was the same T/P everyone had always laughed at for its timidity and its reliance on wire services for local stories that required real reporting.

Could it be that everyone had always been too hard on The Picayune? Had it had a baptism by fire and turned into a real newspaper? Or was the local media (T/P included) uniquely positioned to have a "Giuliani Moment" (I'm sure that better definitions are out there, but I'll define a Giuliani Moment as a seemingly overwhelming situation in which just doing one's job,a job that most people in the same situation could do, makes one appear heroic)? I was away that first week, but from what I've seen since, it was a Giuliani Moment. Alternate theory: the T/P staff performed admirably, even heroically, under stress then reverted to form. Whatever the explanation, by mid-September its performance was abyssmal. That might seem harsh but throughout September and into October the T/P was a national paper, one of the most influential in the country, and it went back to being lazy and timid.

This widely praised (around here, anyway) story from Oct. 10th is a case in point. It does a good job of describing the problems of local businesses, but something seems to be missing. Couldn't figure it out until a friend showed me this email he sent the reporter:

what is the sound of one dog not barking
Dear Mr. Walsh,
I'm just curious, in your Oct. 10th article on FEMA contracts, did you purposely avoid asking how the firms that got FEMA contracts managed to get them? Sure, you recite the official story about their long work history with FEMA, but did that really strike you as the whole story? Didn't it strike as the least bit interesting that the one Louisiana firm to get contracts cites its 1992 Hurricane Andrew work for FEMA? In addition to the fact that FEMA's work after Andrew was widely criticized (though it may be far fetched, some say it contributed to Clinton's victory) didn't you think about the last name of the president in 1992? Haven't you heard the stories that said firm, the Shaw Group, employs Joseph Albaugh's lobbying firm? Is it possible for a reporter to be so incurious?

My friend's email may have been a tad harsh (I suspect he got carried away by his own cleverness) but he was correct that it treated one of the most important parts of the post-katrina story as a human interest story. Bill Walsh replied to say that he had asked how the firms got the contracts and Katrina was worse than Andrew. so I guess the Picayune's Washington bureau considers giving the official explanation to be asking the question, at least when Republicans are in power. The other part made absolutely no sense: FEMA handled Andrew poorly, Katrina was worse than Andrew, so FEMA rehires the same firms that it used after Andrew.

The story may have seemed complete to a Washington Bureau reporter, but the following story that appeared on page A5 ten days later, sure raised some of the same questions as my friend's mail. Of course, the story was from the associated press. In the month since, I've yet to see anything in the Picayune about many contracts have actually been re-bid. Anyone want to guess how many will be?

Just to clarify, I'm not saying that the reporters for the Times Picayune are all biased Republicans. But I've long thought that the case with its Washington Bureau. A quick examination will show that most of the reporters at the T/P have email addresses ending in @timespicayune.com, but the Wash. bureau reporters all have addresses ending in @newhouse.com. Think there's a connection?

Tomorrow (schedule permitting): the editorial page, what happened between September 4th and September 18th, and why it's important.

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