Media moguls, not looters, killed Katrina's truth tellers.
At first, only CNN appeared not to have thoroughly read the proverbial memo. It was the only network, on air and on its Web site, to compare and contrast the wildly contradictory statements by federal, state and local officials, sometimes within hours, but often within minutes of each other. It was CNN that posted the first full transcript of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's profanity- and passion-filled September 2 interview on local radio. It was also CNN that first exposed the gruesome nature of the conditions at the Superdome, at the convention center and in the hospital corridors. Its broadcasters were the first to keep a heart-wrenching online blog during Katrina. Even as late as September 6, political correspondent Ed Henry was the first to counter the claims by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay that local officials and not the feds were to blame, by reporting that congressional Republicans, in a secret confab, were giving the Bush administration a big fat F.
Then the fix was in.
On September 8, CNN anchorette Kyra Phillips was chewing into House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for "continuing to criticize the administration, and criticize the director of FEMA... I think it's unfair that FEMA is just singled out. There are so many people responsible for what has happened in the state of Louisiana."
Instead of smiling through clenched teeth, the San Francisco Democrat bit back: "I'm sorry that you think it's unfair. But I don't . . . If you want to make a case for the White House, you should go on their payroll."
By September 12, even the White House admitted that FEMA had been its own disaster area by pushing out its Arabian-horseman-turned-jackass head, Michael Brown. (Bush finally admitted on Tuesday that the buck was going to stop with him whether he liked it or not. "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," he said.) That same day, CNN's parent company, Time Warner, announced the hiring of DeLay's chief of staff as a top Washington lobbyist. This news, and its timing, prompted Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy to tell the L.A. Weekly: "Time Warner aligning itself with the right-wing DeLay machine should send shudders [down] CNN and HBO. Clearly, TW wants DeLay insurance so it won't have to face cable-ownership safeguards, à la carte rules and broadband non-discrimination policies."
For the first 120 hours after Hurricane Katrina, TV journalists were let off their leashes by their mogul owners, the result of a rare conjoining of flawless timing (summer's biggest vacation week) and foulest tragedy (America's worst natural disaster). All of a sudden, broadcasters narrated disturbing images of the poor, the minority, the aged, the sick and the dead, and discussed complex issues like poverty, race, class, infirmity and ecology that never make it on the air in this swift-boat/anti-gay-marriage/Michael Jackson media-sideshow era. So began a perfect storm of controversy.
Contrary to the scripture so often quoted in these areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, the TV newscasters knew the truth, but the truth did not set them free. Because once the crisis point had passed, most TV journalists went back to business-as-usual, their choke chains yanked by no-longer-inattentive parent-company bosses who, fearful of fallout from fingering Dubya for the FEMA fuckups, decided yet again to sacrifice community need for corporate greed. Too quickly, Katrina's wake was spun into a web of deceit by the Bush administration, then disseminated by the Big Media boys' club. (Karl Rove spent the post-hurricane weekend conjuring up ways to shift blame.)
If big media look like they're propping up W's presidency, they are. Because doing so is good for corporate coffers - in the form of government contracts, billion-dollar tax breaks, regulatory relaxations and security favors. At least that wily old codger Sumner Redstone, head of Viacom, parent company of CBS, has admitted what everyone already knows is true: that, while he personally may be a Democrat, "It happens that I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one."
When it comes to NBC's parent company, GE's No. 1 and No. 2, Jeffrey Immelt and Bob Wright, are avowed Republicans, as are Time Warner's Dick Parsons (CNN) and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch (Fox News Channel). (Forget that Murdoch's No. 2, Peter Chernin, and Redstone's co - No. 2, Les Moonves, are avowed Democrats - it's meaningless because Murdoch and Redstone are the owners.)
Once upon a time, large corporations and their executives typically avoided any public discussion of their politics because partisan positions alienated customers and employees. But all of that changed after GE bought NBC in 1986. For seemingly eons, Immelt's predecessor, the legendary Jack Welch, was a rabid right-winger who boasted openly about helping turn former liberals Chris Matthews and Tim Russert into neocons. (And Los Angeles Representative Henry Waxman is still waiting for GE to turn over those in-house tapes that would prove once and for all whether Welch, in 2000, ordered his network and cable stations to reverse course and call the election for Bush instead of Gore.)
As for Immelt, he publicly wishes his MSNBC could be a clone of FNC. Not surprising, since he let his network and cable news cheerlead the run-up to the Iraqi war without ever bothering to tell viewers GE had billions in contracts pending. More than half of Iraq's power grid is GE technology. It was also under Immelt that GE installed a former adviser to W and Condi, who also served as press secretary to former first lady Barbara "Let 'em eat cake" Bush, as NBC Universal's executive vice president of communications.
And let's not forget that in October 2004, the Republican-controlled House and Senate and White House okayed a $137 billion corporate-tax bill - dubbed "No Lobbyist Left Behind" - that gave a huge $8 billion tax break to GE, which had bankrolled a record $17 million lobbying effort for it. (Meanwhile, in that same bill, House Republicans at the last minute stripped the movie studios of about $1 billion worth of tax credits because of Hollywood's near-constant support of the Democratic Party and its candidates.)
Disney, parent company of ABC, has turned most of its extensive radio network and owned-and-operated stations into a 24/7 orgy of right-wing talk. (Sean Hannity is their poster boy.) Disney's chief lobbyist, Preston Padden, is not only one of Washington, D.C.'s most infamous Republican lobbyists, but he used to work for Rupert Murdoch. Bush even pleaded just days after 9/11 for Americans to "go down to Disney World in Florida." Meanwhile, Disney World has benefited from special security measures, including extra protection and a federally declared "no-flyover zone." And let's not forget that Michael Eisner pulled the distribution plug on Fahrenheit 9/11.
As for Rupert Murdoch, his News Corp. continues to defy a July 2001 FCC order requiring it to divest itself of a TV station in exchange for the agency's approval to buy 10 TV stations from Chris-Craft Industries Inc. for $5.4 billion. What, Rupert worry? This W cheerleader can rest assured that the FCC will amend its prohibition on owning broadcast outlets and newspapers in the same market.
Given all of the above, it comes as no surprise that, as early as that first Saturday, certainly by Sunday, inevitably by Monday, and no later than Tuesday, the post-Katrina images and issues were heavily weighted once again toward the power brokers and the predictable. The angry black guys were gone, and the lying white guys were back, hogging all the TV airtime. So many congressional Republicans were lined up on air to denounce the "blame-Bush game" - all the while decrying the Louisiana Democrats-in-charge - that it could have been conga night at the Chevy Chase Country Club.
And the attitudes of some TV personalities did a dramatic 180.
At MSNBC, right-winger Joe Scarborough had looked genuinely disgusted for a few days by the death and destruction that went unrelieved around him in Biloxi, even daring to demand answers from Bush on down. But Scarborough was back to his left-baiting self in short order. Inside FNC's studio, conservative crank Sean Hannity had been rendered somewhat speechless by the tragedy. Soon, he was back in full voice, barking at Shep Smith (who was still staking out that I-10 bridge and sympathizing with its thousands of refugees) to keep "perspective." The Mississippi-bred Smith boomed back in his baritone, "This is perspective!"
FNC's Bill O'Reilly, who spent last month verbally abusing the grieving mother of a dead Iraqi war soldier, then whiled away the early days of Katrina's aftermath giving lip to New Orleans' looters and shooters, eventually blamed the hurricane's poorest victims for creating their situations and for even expecting any government help at all.
On NBC, Meet the Press host Tim Russert cut off Jefferson Parish's Andre Broussard during one of TV's most moving and memorable outpourings of emotion. Instead, to fill up airtime, Russert let Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour praise Bush's response ad nauseam without reading back Barbour's sharp criticism of the feds days earlier.
On MSNBC, Hardball's hard-brained Chris Matthews chided viewers and guests alike not to talk about who's to blame - unless it was Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco or Mayor Nagin. Interesting how Barbour's state was also dehydrated and starving, but nobody on TV news blamed him, since he just happens to be a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
And Don Imus skewered Dubya's "disgusting performance" at the start of his MSNBC TV show (simulcast on the Viacom/CBS-owned Infinity radio network) and then turned over just 24 hours later, directing blame at Mayor Nagin.
Meanwhile, the TV news situation is about to get worse. Incoming Disney CEO Bob Iger has tried repeatedly to dismantle Nightline for a mindless celeb talk show. And CBS chairman Les Moonves wants to reinvent TV news to be more like entertainment shows - as if it's not that way already - hosted by even prettier people.
Of course, no one could have anticipated that, to their immense credit, TV's prettiest-boy anchors (CNN's Anderson Cooper and FNC's Shep Smith and NBC's Brian Williams) would be boldly and tearfully relating horror whenever and wherever they found it, no matter if the fault lay with Mother Nature or President Dubya. But the real test of pathos vs. profit is still before us: whether the TV newscasters will spend the fresh reservoir of trust earned with the public to not only rattle Bush's cage but also battle their own bosses. If not, it won't be long before TV truth telling will be muzzled permanently.