As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina slamming New Orleans nears, the folks at NBC offered viewers a "Meet the Press" special edition with a sadly predictable conclusion: the disaster was all George W. Bush and the federal government's fault.
The New Orleans mayor at the time was almost entirely ignored in this hour-long examination. The only mention of the state's former governor was actually one of praise.
Rather than offering one new compelling insight into the natural disaster that changed America, the invited guests all fed fill-in host Brian Williams the same old tired lines about racism and classism; despite numerous opportunities to delve into the decades of political corruption in the region that left the levees surrounding New Orleans in a dreadful state of disrepair, the subject was never broached.
Instead, what ensued - given all the time and resources available to really do a groundbreaking exposé on this issue - was something all those involved should be tremendously embarrassed for.
MR. BRIAN WILLIAMS: August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina touches down on the Louisiana coast. The city's levees fail, the next morning nearly 80 percent of New Orleans is under water. A botched government response, a poor local evacuation plan, thousands are left without food, water, shelter or safety, trapped for days as the city is looted and its people suffer.
Here's the picture that was on the screen when Williams said "botched government response":
And that was just the beginning:
WILLIAMS: Senator Landrieu, before I begin with you, I want to show you a piece of videotape of another member of your family. The--a long time ago, a newspaper columnist affectionately called the Landrieu family the "Cajun Camelot," and that's the last time there was, first of all, a white mayor in the city of New Orleans before the current mayor, your dad, Moon Landrieu. What was it, 1970 to '78, a two-term mayor, former head of the Conference of Mayors, later secretary of Housing. Senator, have you searched your own soul and conscience to make sure--there was so much blame that went around after Katrina--that you bore none of it? How--have you sorted out just what it was that happened here?
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: (D-LA): Well, Brian, first of all, no elected official could say that they didn't make mistakes. We all did. It was an extremely tough time. But I can say proudly that I helped to lead the effort to help the federal government respond more effectively.
And that was all the discussion about Landrieu's potential culpability as part of a strong political family in the region, as Williams had much bigger catfish to fry:
MR. WILLIAMS: Now I want to ask you about one of the many promises made after Katrina. I want to roll in a piece of sound from President George W. Bush after Katrina, speaking not far from here in Jackson Square.
(Videotape, September 15, 2005)
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.
MR. WILLIAMS: Senator, you heard it.
SEN. LANDRIEU: Yeah.
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MR. WILLIAMS: Did it turn out to be hollow? Did it turn out...
SEN. LANDRIEU: It was.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think he was telling the truth then?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, it, it turned out to be a hollow promise, and I'll tell you why: Because the federal government didn't stay and do everything they could. The federal government didn't make it easy. They made it very, very difficult.
Landrieu then went on to complain about how little money her region has received from the federal government since Katrina hit. She quoted astonishingly low numbers - in the low millions to be precise - without any challenge whatsoever from Williams about the billions of taypayer dollars that have been sent to this area since 2005.
All Williams had to do was cite figures from the Department of Homeland Security's website to address the many billions of dollars authorized by Congress and former President Bush for Katrina relief in just the first twelve months after the storm made landfall. But that would have made Landrieu look like a liar.
Potentially even more absurd, Williams didn't ask her about last year's Louisiana Purchase when she got $300 million for her state as a bribe from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to change her vote in favor of healthcare reform.
No, such inconvenient truths were unimportant to Williams who changed the subject to the BP oil spill:
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, Senator, we should note that you were talking about wetlands before talking about wetlands was, was in vogue. And, perhaps, though, you can explain the very confusing relationship between Louisiana and oil as we look at the once-beautiful wetlands with that now characteristic oil line that's to be found on all the grass. A lot of folks elsewhere in the country just assumed that the anger down here would come out of the oil spill, the fact that three months of oil is sitting out there in that water. A lot of folks assumed that the folks in Louisiana would be behind a stoppage until there could be a rule that if you can get oil a mile down, you should be able to stop it. What is the relationship between Louisianans, who love the great outdoors and have some of the great outdoors in all of the world, and the petroleum that comes out deep under the ground?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, Brian, please know that people are very angry about that spill, and very disappointed in BP, and very disappointed in the subcontractors as well, and are just furious about the oil. We want to keep our waters clean. We've tried to keep our waters clean all these years. But we do have a strong relationship with the oil and gas industry, not just big oil, but independents and the thousands of small businesses that we built that we're proud of that support that industry because the nation needs this oil. This nation consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day. It did the day before the Deep Horizon exploded, it does today. Now, we're going to transition to cleaner fuels. And by the way, Louisiana is well positioned to be part of the energy future, not just our past. But that's why people down here feel so strongly. We've been fishing in the same waters that we drill for oil. We've been navigating all of the commerce of--not only of this country, but of the world on those same waters. And yes, Brian, we recreate, we swim in those waters. And we believe with the right kind of balance in policy we can do it. So, yes, a pause was necessary. But a six-month moratorium has put a, a blanket of fear and anxiety, and it must be lifted as soon as possible.
Might have been a nice time for Williams to bring up all the contributions Landrieu received from BP during the 2008 election cycle. That year, she received more from this oil company than any other member of Congress.
But Williams wasn't interested in challenging his guests:
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Mayor, was the administration slow off the dime when the spill happened?
NEW ORLEANS MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: I don't think so. They were down here pretty quickly. And, of course, this was a much different disaster than Katrina was. I can honestly say that they've been working very hard at it.
This might have been a great time to reference a recent PPP poll about what Louisianans think about Bush's job of handling Katrina versus Obama's job with the oil spill (h/t NBer Gary Hall):
Louisianans' severe disapproval of Obama overall, 35-61, mirrors their disdain for his efforts in the cleanup, 32-61. George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, by contrast, is viewed barely negatively, 44-47; the response in June, 34-58, was more in line with Obama's, 32-62. A full 54% now think Bush did a better job dealing with crisis than Obama, who gets the vote of only 33%.
Unfortunately, Williams chose to ignore this as well, and decided to head back to Katrina:
MR. WILLIAMS: How should Ray Nagin's term as mayor be remembered, as history looks back on what happened here?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Well, that's a, that's a very hard thing for me to opine about, you know?
MR. WILLIAMS: Try.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: We're going to let history--we're going to let history take care of itself. I would say this. You have not seen me talk much about what happened during the storm. That was a cataclysmic event. Who knows how to judge people that went through those couple of days? I will say...
MR. WILLIAMS: But you were in it, and now you have his old job.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Yeah. I don't, I don't think generally that it was well done. But I would say this, that subsequent to the storm, putting the city in a position to recover, as it were, I don't think he did a good job. That's why I ran against him the first time, and of course, it's why I ran the second time. I really believe that this city can fix itself.
But I will say this, just to put an exclamation point on President Bush's statements a minute ago. There was huge damage, the damage was man-made. It was a result of the federal government's negligence. And not withstanding all the incredible things that the people of America have done for us, we have not received enough money to repair the damage that was done. And when we do, we will be able to rebuild the city faster.
Amazing. And that was all that was said about the mayor in the middle of this disaster.
From there, Williams did an interview with actor Brad Pitt about his charitable efforts in the region, and then invited in some local celebrities that further pointed their fingers at Bush and the federal government:
MR. WILLIAMS: ...until we--until we recently aired our own documentary on MSNBC and NBC News, you told me you'd been in a dark radio studio on generators, you, you hadn't seen a lot of the pictures. But now you, you think about this region so much, you've lived here so long, raised in the bayou south of here, four decades in New Orleans, looking back, what was it we witnessed here, what do you think went on those few days?
GARLAND ROBINETTE, JOURNALIST AND RADIO HOST: To me, it was a Salvador Dali painting, it was just surreal. The United States of America couldn't take care of itself. I've been to Banda Aceh, I've been all over the world with a company that I owned, and I've seen how we respond to disasters. And the very thought that for five days they couldn't get here and do the job is just, to this day, is mind-boggling.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is it too easy to throw a label on it, stamp it racism, classism? I once asked President George W. Bush on board Air Force One, I said, "Mr. President, if this had happened in Nantucket or New York or Chicago," he interrupted me and said, "You can call me anything you want, but don't call me a racist." That was his response to that. What do you think was at work here?
Shameful, but it was going to get worse:
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to break that dull glaze by--and this is an essential part of this coverage, I believe, reminding people what it was like back then. Here is a clip from MEET THE PRESS the Sunday after Katrina that was beamed around the world. The president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, pleading with Tim Russert and the authorities who might be watching television to send help.
(Videotape, September 4, 2005)
MR. AARON BROUSSARD: Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary's promised, everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm, I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
MR. WILLIAMS: Aaron Broussard on live television.
The research behind this special was astonishingly sub-standard; within days of Broussard's appearance on "MTP," it was exposed that he had lied about some of the things he told the late Tim Russert that day.
Three weeks later, Russert grilled Broussard about how he had totally misrepresented the death of a colleague's mother during his first appearance.
Even worse, Broussard resigned as President of Jefferson Parish this past January in the midst of a federal corruption investigation.
Nice character witness there, Brian!
But there was still more:
MR. WILLIAMS: It's yesterday, really, and it's been five years. The children and relatives of the people at this table, I'm going to go ahead and guess, would not have gone a week without water or food because their dads, their dads' companies would have found a way, as NBC News did, as NBC News did, to get us supplies in the central business district. They found us in Metairie in the parking lot of a used car dealer, and they made sure we had something to drink. What's the difference? Why didn't it matter to someone? Why wasn't someone able to, to get supplies and get those folks out?
WENDELL PIERCE, ACTOR: I think the thing that you have to remember is that we have to understand that the disaster lifted the veil of issues of race, of issues of class, not only in this city, but in the country. If we're to move past it and truly be a part of this wonderful recovery that we're feeling, we can't look at it through rose-colored glasses. It is not an indictment of any one person or whatever, it's an indictment of us all. We have to look at all of the issues that caused the fermentation of that poverty. One of the things that we can't lose sight of is the fact that many New Orleanians heard that call from Garland Robinette on their transistors radios in the hinterlands of New Orleans, and we tried to make a Dunkirk run to that convention center--white, black, rich, poor--because they had the humanity within them when they saw those images and when they heard those voices cry out. This was an abject failure and incompetence of our government. No one's feet have been held to the fire because of it. We can sit here and debate the pathology of what caused it--racism, classism, a lack of respect for New Orleans and this region. But does that matter if we don't hold anyone accountable and if we forget the incompetence that was displayed during that week? We have to hold people accountable. If we're not going to go back and hold those people accountable, make sure that we held--hold people accountable now as we move forward. And if we're truly to move past this, we have to look at ourselves and see what is our contribution to this dysfunctional dynamic, and how can we change the paradigm, the dysfunction of class and racism, the dysfunction of education, which is the root cause of all of this.
Amazing. After all, if you remove the passion from this issue and look at it from a purely logicial perspective, another conclusion has to be reached.
As NewsBusters reported in March 2006, the folks at Popular Mechanics spent a great deal of time researching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and their findings went quite contrary to the conventional wisdom both then and now:
Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest-and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm's landfall. [...]
Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day-some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, ‘guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways,' says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000. [...]
While the press focused on FEMA's shortcomings, this broad array of local, state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary success-especially given the huge area devastated by the storm. Computer simulations of a Katrina-strength hurricane had estimated a worst-case-scenario death toll of more than 60,000 people in Louisiana. The actual number was 1077 in that state.
Once again, these facts would have gotten in the way of Williams' agenda on Sunday, and that of liberal historian Douglas Brinkley who actually said, "Governor Blanco, during Katrina, is the one who eventually got the buses to get those people out of the convention center. And she's the one who got the Superdome refixed, but she's also not given credit for that."
Imagine that. The governor that badly failed her citizens during this crisis demonstrating staggering levels of incompetence was finally mentioned in this hour-long special edition of "Meet the Press" only to be commended for her efforts.
That should be all readers needed to know about the total lack of impartiality and balance presented to viewers this Sunday.
As I stated at the onset, the folks involved in this propagandist piece of detritus should be ashamed and embarrassed for what they've produced.
After five years, for one of the largest and most well-funded news organizations to be able to offer no new insights or facts behind this history-changing natural disaster than that it was all caused by Bush, the federal government, and racism is nothing less than disgraceful.
If this was all NBC had to say on this issue, why not just put together clips of their hideous coverage from five years ago?
And they wonder why people across the fruited plain continue to switch to other sources for their news.