Saturday, December 03, 2005

What's Up at the Times Picayune?

Before I go into detail about today's paper, I should say that I don't believe that the staff writers at the T/P should serve as apologists for either the Blanco or Nagin administration. They should report on the failures of the state, local and federal governments and let the chips fall where they may. Of course, one would hope that the entire media would realize that state's position of having to beg from the federal government makes he said/she said journalism inadequate for post-Katrina reporting. Still, the La. media would only embarrass themselves (and probably the state) if they acted as shamelessly boosterish as the Alaska Media .

That said, by mid-September the T/P's greater appetite for criticizing the city and state over the federal government became so pronounced that it led at least one writer (me,of course) to wonder if its editors had received the proverbial memo . This reluctance to criticize Washington, or correct groundless criticisms of La., continued through October before abating in November. Actually, the T/P has seemed fairly balanced for the last month. It has accurately reported on the failures at all three levels of government, although it still doesn't seem to have regained any desire to counter groundless criticism of the city or state.

Unfortunately, today's coverage of Gov. Blanco's handling of the Katrina crisis raises concerns that the T/P may be returning to its October (pre-Marty Bahamonde?) mindset. In three articles, two on pg.1, the third sandwiched between their pg.14-15 continuations, the paper addresses vaious aspects of the issue. Note: where the print headline or text varies from the online edition, I quote from the print.

The first was a surprisingly unbiased (well, surprising to me, Ive been critical of one of its coauthors, Bill Walsh, in the past) account of various versions of who was responsible for the delay in relief buses reaching the city. It does answer a question I've long had (links here and here , if anyone has that much interest in my opinions) about why nobody in the federal government said anything if there was something wrong with the state's aid request:

Margaret Grant sent an e-mail to Blanco's office Sept. 7 asking that the Sept. 2 letter be resent.

"We found it on the governor's Web site but we need 'an original,' for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making," Grant wrote

Apparently I've been wrong, somebody in the federal government did say "something." She just waited until Sept. 7th to say it.

It's hard to say that the third small story, (sandwiched between the other two) showed a bias, other than a timid bias toward he said/she said journalism. Rather than examine the facts about who was responsible for the delay in National Guard units reaching the city, the reporter is content to merely give the state and federal versions of events. Will someone please tell the staff of the Times Picayune that he said/she said journalism is only appropriate when both sides have equal abilty to get their message out. That's assuming that it's ever appropriate at all.

The bias of the second front page story is unmistable, the headline and opening paragraph say it all:

Blanco's office scrambled to spin Katrina
E-mails detail effort to ensure feds took blame for slow response

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the Bush administration were locked in a pitched political battle to shape public opinion about the response to Hurricane Katrina at the same time they were trying to manage the rescue operation, documents released late Friday by the governor's office show.

Actually, the story begins with RNC talking points that it fails to backup. From the above, one would clearly think that the Blanco administration was focused on PR at the height of the crisis. However, the story goes on to say:

"We need to keep working to get our national surrogates to explain the facts -- that the federal response was anemic and had been shortchanged by budget cuts and avoiding responsibilities like protecting Louisiana levees and wetlands," Chief of Staff Andy Kopplin wrote to senior staff on the morning of Sept. 4, six days after Katrina made landfall.

Admittedly, I spent Sept. 4 in a Dothan,Al. motel room, but I sure got the impression that the height of the crisis was over by that point. That's not cherry picking on my part, either. The earliest date I can find mentioned in the article comes in this passage:

The exchange came two days after a private meeting aboard Air Force One in which President Bush asked Blanco to cede control over the National Guard forces in Louisiana to the federal government. Blanco refused.

Would even Bush's most ardent supporters, or Blanco's most fervent detractors, argue that by Sept. 2, federal help should not have already arrived? If the T/P is going to use its headlines to proclaim GOP proganda, it might want to check the text of the accompanying story.

If that seems like an overreaction to a headline and opening paragraph, remember that that's what most people absorb from a story. Also, I'm reminded of the headline of the OP-ED piece that the Picayune's Stephanie Grace published on Oct. 13 (not available on line):

It's time to care what others think

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