Topic: Media

Katrina Ethics, Part 2: A New Low for TV Journalism

Washington Post media commentator Howard Kurtz has clearly wallowed in the ethics vacuum of his profession for so long that he no longer can see blatant ethical misconduct when it’s right under his nose. His most recent column actually praised the hysterical and unprofessional behavior of some of the most prominent television journalists in the field during the aftermath of Katrina. What Kurtz should have said, and what needs to be said, is that their emotional and self-important rants represented a total abandonment of professional values. When they were supposed to be reporting on the conditions in New Orleans and the rescue efforts, they injected themselves into the story by becoming advocates, Monday morning quarterbacks and grand inquisitors. These were disgraceful performances, and shocking ones. The complete collapse of objectivity revealed how thin and inadequate is the training and professional sensibilities of those who give Americans the bulk of their news.

Legend has it that after the Zeppelin Hindenburg exploded into flames on May 6, 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the announcer was summarily fired for dissolving into sobs and screaming “Oh, the humanity!” when he should stayed composed enough to describe the scene. The story is false, but he deserved to be fired. Memorable as his reaction was, it was the result of a failure by a supposed professional who proved unable to perform his job professionally when professionalism was most needed. Similarly, news reporters like Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera, obviously, understandably, but not excusably overwhelmed by the carnage and suffering of the hurricane’s survivors and the sheer magnitude of the disaster, erupted into emotional condemnations of the relief effort and national officials.

Jack Shafer of SLATE noted with approval that ‘In the last couple of days, many of the broadcasters reporting from the bowl-shaped toxic waste dump that was once the city of New Orleans have stopped playing the role of wind-swept wet men facing down a big storm to become public advocates for the poor, the displaced, the starving, the dying, and the dead.” Admirable perhaps from a humanistic perspective, but absolutely unethical from a journalistic one. Being advocates for the poor and displaced is not why reporters were sent to New Orleans; it is not what their job was, and it is not what they are remotely qualified to do.

Yes: it must have been extremely difficult for the reporters to witness first hand the astonishing plight of so many. Nonetheless, their professional responsibility was to maintain their composure and objectivity, and they failed. Not only failed, but unapologetically failed, as if they were not even aware what their responsibilities were. Their self-righteous abdication of their professional duties was no less egregious than the hundreds of New Orleans police who walked off the job because they were “overwhelmed” by the disaster in the city that was depending on their professional skills to help it survive.

Especially outrageous were the interviews in which Tim Russert, Cooper and others chose to chastise Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Trent Lott for not mobilizing “faster.” For outraged reporters on the scene, “too slow rescue efforts” apparently meant that if anyone perished, was in pain or suffered discomfort before relief arrived, the relief was too slow. This is a reasonable definition, especially if you are one of those dying, starving or living on the roof, but it is hardly a sophisticated or enlightening one. “Too slow” must be a relative term to be meaningful. Against what standard was the rescue effort “too slow”? The reporters gave us no clue. Were they aware of a comparable disaster involving similar problems, extent of territory and number of people? If they were, they never revealed them. At no point did they seek or offer explanations of the actual logistics of the rescue mobilization; their conclusions were as simplistic as a child’s. People were suffering for days, so someone had obviously been incompetent or simply didn’t care.

The issue that viewers needed to be explored was why the rescue wasn’t happening faster, not that victims, responsibility-shifting local officials and self-appointed avenging television reporters had declared it to be “too slow.” On that distinction hangs the divide between ethical and professional reporting and televised meddling.

“I see no evidence of planning, Mr. Secretary!” declaimed NBC’s Tim Russert indignantly. What exactly does Tim Russert, Anderson Cooper, or Geraldo Rivera know about planning? What qualifies them to assess what is or isn’t adequate planning? Nothing. Television journalists with very, very few exceptions do not advance in their careers because they are the best and the brightest, but because they are prettiest, the glibbest, and the hardest working. They have not run successful businesses or planned and managed complex projects; they do not have experience as decision-makers or budget-balancers; they did not study business or political science. They can be pundits if they choose, but for any of them to go nose-to-nose with those who have challenging real world responsibilities and imply that they don’t know how to do their jobs is astonishingly presumptuous. Reporters have no idea what doing those jobs entail.

And their conduct after Katrina showed that many of them have no idea what their own jobs entail. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Aaron Brown, for example, seemed to believe that their job as cable network news anchors required them to act as surrogates for Al Sharpton. Both were so determined to promote the idea that the flawed rescue efforts reflected racist attitudes in the Bush administration and in white America generally that they raised the issue over and over again, essentially begging for someone to take their lead and level the accusation.

Here’s Blizter interviewing Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings on CNN’s “The Situation Room”:

Wolf Blitzer: “Congressman, thanks very much for joining us. You’re looking at these pictures. As you know, many African-American members of Congress earlier today said they’ve been ashamed and outraged by the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Give us your thoughts as of right now.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD): “Well, I’m feeling a little bit better, but I got to tell you that we were outraged, and many of us still are. The fact is, is that we believe the administration moved a little bit late and did not take this matter as urgently as they should have….”

Blitzer: “It’s taken several days. This hurricane hit Monday morning, it is now Friday afternoon, and we saw just a couple of hours ago, U.S. troops move into that convention center in New Orleans, about 1,000 National Guard and Army personnel with supplies. There have been some that have suggested that race has been a factor because so many of the people in New Orleans who have been suffering, as you well know, are African-American.”

Cummings: “Well, the Caucus, we took the position that it was the frail, the weak, and those that are sick that are suffering. Keep in mind, Wolf, you just talked about the troops marching in. A lot of people have died, and a lot of people will die, and sadly — that’s sad — but the fact is that the President we would have hoped would have moved sooner. Governor Blanco even said the same thing. And certainly, Mayor Nagin. But I think that he’s on the right track right now, but we are asking that people be helped immediately. I mean, when you’ve got people who can’t even get formula for a baby or water for their children, and you’ve got elderly people lying in carts suffering from bone cancer, lying in an airport, somebody’s got to speak up, and I’m glad the Caucus did speak up, and I think that we made a difference already.”

Blitzer: “But do you believe, if it was, in fact, a slow response, as many now believe it was, was it in part the result of racism? Is that what you’re suggesting?”

Cummings: “I’m not sure. All I know is that a number of the faces that I saw were African-American, but the Caucus has always stood for all Americans, particularly those who have been often left out of the system. And people that I’ve seen on your channel, by the way, are people who are the frail, the elderly, the sick, those people, children, people who, and people literally walking around in water for days in their own feces with dead bodies floating….”

Blitzer: “New Orleans, a very predominantly African-American city, as you well know. There are some critics who are saying, and I don’t know if you’re among those, but people have said to me, had this happened in a predominantly white community, the federal government would have responded much more quickly. Do you believe that?”

Cummings: “I think that that’s a pretty good probability. The fact is, though, and keep in mind another thing, Wolf, we have not even seen emerge from all of this those people who have passed away. There’s another wave coming over this thing. Number one, we have to bring relief. Number two, we have to reconstruct and reconstruct people’s lives….” 

Before presenting Aaron Brown’s similarly jaw-dropping performance, it needs to be said that the accusation that the delays in rescue efforts were due to racial bias has to be one of the most irresponsible, malicious and frankly stupid examples of race-baiting in the long history of that irresponsible, malicious and stupid below-the-belt political tactic, and anyone who participated in spreading it deserves universal condemnation. First and foremost, there is no evidence of this at all. The fact that a majority of the poor who were trapped by the hurricane were black and the fact that rescue efforts were slow does not add up to proof of intentional discrimination, and saying otherwise does not change the equation. Nobody is charging the mayor of New Orleans with racism, though he stuffed thousand of African-Americans into the Superdome without adequate food or toilet facilities and never attempted to evacuate poor blacks with city buses. Of course, he is African-American. So the thrust of the racism argument is that when an African-American local official makes a mistake in a crisis, it’s just a mistake, but if a Republican administration makes a mistake, it is really part of a bigoted conspiracy.

Now that’s racism.

Who , exactly, was showing prejudice here? “The Administration?” What, everybody…Condi Rice, Alberto Gonzalez? The President? First of all, he does not have sufficient direct control over rescue efforts to personally delay the rescue efforts; second, if he did, it would be politically suicidal to do so; third, he would have had to know in advance that the majority of storm victims would be black so he could make certain to gum up the works in advance. This is pernicious, hate-mongering nonsense that springs from the same vast well of ignorance, bile and ill-will as other conspiracy theories, and the media’s job is to expose them, not promote them.

But tell that to Aaron Brown on CNN’s “Newsnight,” who seemed to endorse a conspiracy far broader than the Bush Administration while talking with Ohio Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. He began with this introduction:

Two- thirds of the population of New Orleans is African-American, 30 percent of the city’s residents — 30 percent — live below the poverty line. It’s a difficult question to ask. Race is always a difficult thing to talk about in the country. But it certainly has become a part of the story.

Mid-interview, speaking to Jones:

Brown: “I don’t know if it’s race or class, to be honest. But I was just thinking about that hospital evacuation you were talking about earlier. You do get the feeling that poor people in the country get shafted.”

Rep. Jones: “It’s no question that poor people in this country get shafted….”

Brown: “Let me — I want to talk about — I want to go right at the heart of this in some ways. How do you think white America will react — has — is reacting, to all of these images? These images of black people living in these giant shelters, and all of the problems that are being reported out of them, the stories and the pictures of looting? How do you think white America will process that?”

Jones: “Well, you know what? I have been in public office for 24 years, and the only African-American elected official in almost every office that I’ve held. And there are people of good will in America, regardless of their color. But there are going to be some who will say, yeah, those black folks, they were looting over there in New Orleans, or those black folks just didn’t know how to live, and they’re living in squalor anyway, so it’s not any different….And I’m hoping that most of America, either white, black, brown, will say, this is a shame that we’re allowing this to happen in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the greatest democracy in the world, that we will allow this to happen, and allow it to happen based on race.”

Brown: “That’s how you hope white people look at it. Now, tell me how you think black people in the country, outside of New Orleans, are seeing this story? Then maybe — through a different set of eyes, a different set of life experiences?”

Jones: “Black people across America have all types of life experiences. But I guarantee each and every one of them, their hearts are going out, because you have to keep in mind that the people, African-American people of America, migrated from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and Florida. And all of those that are in Detroit, New York, these are their relatives that they’re seeing on that picture. Though they may not be blood.”

Brown: “Congresswoman, of course their hearts go out to them. In many respects, all of our hearts go out to them. But-“

Jones: “Oh, they’re affected.”

Brown: “But I think the question — I think what I’m wondering is, do you think black America’s sitting there thinking, if these were middle class white people, there would be cruise ships in New Orleans, not the Superdome?”

Jones: “Let me say it to you like this, Aaron. We are offended. We are outraged that America, the democracy, is not living up to its calling. We are offended that so many African-American folk — I’m offended that there are black, brown, whatever color they are, they are sitting in the Astrodome somewhere, not being taken care of. I’m offended that the government has not allocated the resources. It wasn’t yesterday that they knew this was going to happen. It was six days ago….Let me show — give you one more example. I’ve been to military alliances across this world, and the Red Horse — and I strongly talk about Red Horse, which are National Guard. They go in and build a hospital in two days. They go in and put cement roads in two to three days. They go in and put housing in. Where is Red Horse? Why aren’t the Red Horse down in Mississippi, Alabama and New Orleans?”

Brown: “Now, look, here’s the question, okay? And then we’ll end this. Do you think the reason that they’re not there or the food is not there or the cruise ships aren’t there or all this stuff that you believe should be there, isn’t this a matter of race and/or class?”

Jones: “I think it’s mostly a matter of class, but clearly, race is a factor in the areas in which we’re operating in southern America. And that were it different, were I the President, it wouldn’t be happening.”

Let it be said that kudos are due to both Cummings and Jones for resisting such repeated invitations to make divisive and unfair statements. Not surprisingly, the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were not so responsible, but this is hardly surprising.

After the response to Katrina is thoroughly investigated, the planning flaws recognized, the bureaucratic errors traced, the organizational misfires diagnosed, bottle-necks identified and the blunders enumerated…and there will be plenty of all of these…then perhaps someone will organize a similar inquiry into where television journalism lost its way, and how it can find its was back. Journalists are supposed to be advocates of the truth, not particular groups, no matter how worthy or needy. And they have an obligation not to use their visibility as a substitute for expertise and insight they do not have.

Katrina exposed the ethical confusion of the media as thoroughly she exposed the existence of inadequacies in local, state and national emergency services and systems. The journalists need to tend to the breakdown of their own professional standards and stop presuming that they know how to solve problems far outside their training, abilities, experience…and job description.

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