If we are going to find our standard story of hope to cap off a grim newscast, one week and one day after the levees gave way, it's going to take some desperate casting about in the enormity of a tragedy vastly compounded by criminal government incompetence and indifference. Let us not turn to President George W. Bush and his solemn promise to the nation, two critical days after Katrina struck, that the federal government was mobilizing to send "144 generators" to the Gulf Region. His well-oiled team, apparently paralyzed for days by the rigors of shoe shopping and summer vacations, is desperately trying to regain footing in the reeking waters--terrified that the estate tax repeal might be endangered.
No, hope lies, if only briefly, in network news and the national mainstream media. Much has been written, and will deservedly continue to be written, about newscasters' reflexive blaming of the victims, the wearisomely repeated questioning of why the victims "chose" to stay, the early uncomfortable avoidance of talking about race while simultaneously pandering to racism with footage of lawless black looters (although I was delighted to see footage of one white looter carting off some critical-for-survival golf clubs).
But in the midst of the predictable blather and saccharine stories of the little people who could--something extraordinary is happening. Reporters are reporting. Facts have broken out of their quarantine. Real journalism is occurring--not just on a few isolated blogs, but on television. In newspapers. Yes, even Fox News is showing small signs of journalistic eptitude. This is the real hope in the midst of despair. Is it possible that the national media have awoken from their collective coma and are doing their jobs, if only temporarily? Was Katrina a kind of collective tipping point? This past long week, I found myself occasionally nodding, instead of sneering, at the reporting on network news. Fox's Shepard Smith, tanned and face-lifted, was a vision of angry sanity.
On many television networks, from Thursday onward, it was the revolt of the network reporters, furious and overwhelmed by a flood of facts and misery they couldn't escape. It spread across the networks: the passionate reporting of facts, talking back to the talking heads. As Anderson Cooper of CNN snapped at a soignée anchor, who was empathizing with "the frustration people must feel": "It's not just frustration. People are dying down here."
But I have to delay my story of hope while we turn to a breaking story of local media mediocrity. Why do many of us continue to hope that The News & Observer is going to rise to the occasion and show an editorial spine or vision when there's a crisis? And this is about leadership, not about the abilities of the rank and file. Katrina has temporarily floated even a couple of Fox News' boats. Not so at the N&O. I have been more impressed by the editorial vision of the nearly moribund Durham Herald-Sun, which, while sometimes reactionary, is at least reactive.
The N&O's editorials, mealy-mouthed and careful since the election, have only provided more of the same during the critical first week of crisis. I'll live with the N&O waiting a couple of days to dispatch reporters down to the Gulf to gather local angle stories. But I'd really rather the N&O started using telephones and documents. The deadly color-by-numbers of formulaic journalism and editorials (with a sentimental dog in the storm story featured on Sunday's front page) is getting old. Give me the Herald-Sun. It ran a front-page story Monday essentially reported via cell phone by three outraged Duke students. Low budget, yes. But utterly compelling and substantive.
The N&O, both in the stories it runs and its editorials, seems to spend an inordinate amount of time positioning itself carefully to be able--in all instances--to defend its actions post facto. It tiptoes carefully through the political minefields it perceives all around it. Michael Brown? Poor Michael Brown, ousted from his horse association job. Let's not run that. Let's run instead a carefully "balanced" story about how hard it is to respond to nasty network interviews, with a headline that deflects responsibility: "Defending FEMA no picnic for director." Stories that contain searing criticism of federal response--with one notable exception on Friday--have been played inside or often not played at all. There are dozens of them out there, all available to the N&O, from such radical sources as The Washington Post, the Associated Press and The New York Times. On Sunday, the Post's lead stories hit hard: "Thousands Await Help while Feds Shift Blame" and "What Went Wrong: Storm Exposes Disarray at the Top."
But the N&O instead chose to run Knight-Ridder's Teddy Rides Again! wrap-up: "President Bush sent in the cavalry Saturday..."--a story that unquestioningly ran Bush's well-tested and increasingly used favorite word: "unacceptable." "Many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, and that is unacceptable."
What is unacceptable to me is that we live in a major metropolitan center in the South with a well-funded newspaper filled with many fine reporters and, yes, a number of fine editors, with access to other newspapers' and network news' well-reported stories--but what we got last week, with a few exceptions, was formulaic pablum when we needed sustenance.
Let us now spend a moment inside the editorial pages of last week's paper. The N&O's Thursday lead editorial had this to say about the unfolding disaster that had already taken alarming turns for the worse through incompetence and indifference: "President Bush is off to a good start." The editorial gingerly suggested that he might kick it up a notch. It might do the nation good "to see the leader of the free world wield a hammer in building someone a house." (A submarine house?) Ah, yes, just what the Gulf Coast needs: another meaningless and misleading Bush photo op while people are dropping like flies.
By Friday, the N&O's lead editorial, filled with clichéd overwriting, still somehow managed to underwrite Bush's response as "well-intended, certainly," but not "all that inspiring." That editorial proffered, however, a plenitude of platitudes to victims, including prayer vigils, and offered some special gendered ways to help these "good people": "A doll for a little girl; a tiny race car for her brother." How about some potable water? It was only on Saturday that the lead editorial fully committed to a vague, passive stand. "There will be ample time, once the victims have been rescued and the dead buried, to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of those who should bear it."
And when we find out who those people are, we'll send them to their rooms without their tiny race cars.
By Sunday, it was simply offensive. The editorial Q section featured a cover piece on Greek life and the joys of being a fraternity pledge, gathering warm goat dung pizza and the imprints of women's breasts in peanut butter. Was it too late on Tuesday to think about retooling the editorial section in the face of a national crisis that rivals, if it doesn't ultimately outstrip, 9/11? The inside editorials, too, returned us firmly to Nawth Carolina and its pressing issues: the lottery, the risks of Boy and Girl scouts camping on a coastal battleship--sharp metal objects! narrow hallways!--and, finally, a paean to dragonflies. Dragonflies are neat. But might we suspend the obligatory beauties of nature editorial for just a week?
That was the same day that The Los Angeles Times' lead editorial read: "By now it is clear that the federal government's initial response, which has improved markedly in the last few days, fell somewhere between the criminally negligent and the pathetically feeble."
Do I sound angry and bitter? Nah. You want anger and bitterness, turn to the usually compliant and compromised aging boys of network news. It spread like a wonderful virus, like communism, across the networks.
And then came the most wonderful surprise of all. Shepard Smith of Fox News, tanned but pissed as hell. The unbearable Geraldo Rivera, red and tense, crying into his walrus mustache. Bless his heart. Both were furious, fighting with Fox's talking heads: Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Neither of them comatose. Shepard Smith not pandering. Geraldo? Well, utter transformation is hard.
But both of them are actually reporting. Facts. People are dying. There's no food, there's no water, there's no sanitation--people are not being allowed to leave the New Orleans Convention Center. People are sent places with promises, then abandoned. Facts emerged, tumbling over themselves.
As Shepard Smith stubbornly repeated, over and over, like a mantra: "It's a fact." And Hannity interrupting repeatedly: "Hold on, I want to get some perspective here." And Smith snapped back, "That is perspective. That is all the perspective you need."
It was the awakening of Rip Van Reporter. This was the perfect storm. Here, in the United States of America. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were grounded. There were no more excuses about the razor wire of Guantanamo or the thick walls of Abu Ghraib keeping reporters from their appointed rounds. For the first time since 9/11, facts got in the way.