Matt Lauer Advances Crackpot Katrina Conspiracy Theory

On this morning's Today, NBC's Matt Lauer asked New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to address the conspiracy theory that the levees were intentionally blown up to protect white neighborhoods at the expense of African-Americans. Reciting a question Brian Williams posed in his special, Lauer asked Nagin: "And finally the elephant in the room, if you will, Mr. Nagin. There are still people in the black community, many people, and Brian Williams touched on this in a special last night on NBC, who believe that the day after Katrina struck New Orleans the levees were breached intentionally. That they were blown, if you will, to flood black and poor neighborhoods to spare middle-class white neighborhoods. It would seem very difficult for New Orleans to move forward until that's directly addressed. What do you say about it?"

Nagin responded that "we still have not found any evidence to support that," and that Katrina, "impacted white neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods and Asian neighborhoods. So this is a storm that did not discriminate but if we find any evidence we'll follow up on it." Nagin didn't completely knock down the theory but what on Earth is a so-called responsible news network asking the question in the first place? It would be like Lauer asking the head of NASA if the moon landing was faked.

Today was full of Katrina bias this morning beginning with Lauer's introduction at the top of the show:

Lauer: "Good morning, it was a once in a lifetime storm. One year ago she slammed into the Gulf Coast with 150 mph winds. Devastating a great American city ripping at the hearts and the souls of a region, laying bare an America still achingly divided by race and class. And battering the image of an administration."

[George W. Bush: "I want to know what went right, what went wrong."]

Lauer: "Lauer: "Now we'll return to a region still in tatters. Hurricane Katrina, The Long Road Back, today, Tuesday, August 29th, 2006."

Lauer then portrayed the Michael Brown as the fall guy for the administration in numerous teases for the Brown segment, first touched on here by Mark Finkelstein:

Lauer at the top of the show: "We'll also catch up with the person who became fairly or unfairly the poster boy for the administration's slow response to this disaster, former FEMA Director Michael Brown. He says he sounded the alarm but no one was listening." Lauer again at 7:22am: "And still to come on today the man who took the fall for the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina, former FEMA Director Michael Brown. We'll get his thoughts, one year later."

Lauer repeatedly pushed Brown to blame the administration in his interview. The following is the full transcript of the segment:

[7:43am]

Matt Lauer: "And back now to more of our special coverage of Katrina: The Long Road Back. One year ago today FEMA Director Michael Brown was faced with a catastrophe of a lifetime when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In a sound bite for the ages President Bush initially praised him for his work."

[George W. Bush: "And I want to thank you all for, and Brownie you're doing a heckuva job. The FEMA director is working 24..."]

Lauer: "But as the relief effort fell apart so did Michael Brown's reputation. He resigned under fire two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Michael Brown, good morning, good to see you."

Michael Brown: "Thank you, Matt."

Lauer: "This is the anniversary of the day Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, so a year ago today were you confident as that storm approached the federal government's plan was adequate to deal with anything that storm could deliver?"

Brown: "What plan? Matt, there wasn't a plan. There was no plan."

Lauer: "You were FEMA director, what was your plan?"

Brown: "Well the plan was that three years ago we should have started doing catastrophic disaster planning and Homeland Security Secretary Ridge and Chertoff, for that matter the administration, would not give me the money to do that kind of planning."

Lauer: "However you went in front of the television cameras, Mr. Brown, and you said, 'Hey we're okay, we got the agencies in place, we'll get the need, we'll get the help to where people need it.' Why did you say that if you didn't think there was a plan?"

Brown: "Because those were the White House talking points and to this, and to this day I say that was my biggest mistake."

Lauer: "You should have gone off to the mountain top and said, 'We got trouble right here in River City?'"

Brown: "Absolutely."

Lauer: "The day after the storm, the levees breached and, and pardon the expression, all hell broke loose. We started seeing images of people running for shelter of last resort, going to their rooftop, going into trees. You were getting emails from your people on the ground saying this is beyond critical here."

Brown: "Right, right."

Lauer: "You warned the President and no help arrived."

Brown: "And in fact by Friday there's an email where I was still mailing, emailing the President and my staff..."

Lauer: "Well forget Friday, I'm talking about the day after the storm struck."

Brown: "But, but my point is all the way through from Monday until Friday I'm still screaming, where's the 82nd Airborne? Where's the Army? Where the hell is the help?"

Lauer: "Here's what was so frustrating for people and I think infuriating for the general public. Television cameras were showing one set of images."

Brown: "Right."

Lauer: "We're seeing people in the, in the Superdome screaming that conditions were unbearable."

Brown: "Right."

Lauer: "We're seeing people stranded on their rooftops and that the officials kept coming out saying this response is working, it's efficient. What were your thoughts when you were seeing those same images the rest of the country was seeing?"

Brown: "That, that this thing was not working and that's why I think my biggest regret to this day is, is not, instead of following those talking points and sitting with Governor Blanco talking about how great things are is leveling with the American public. I think all of these people want to hear from politicians the truth. They want to hear just honest opinions and I didn't do that."

Lauer: "But, but Michael, I mean were you protecting the government talking points, as you said a second ago, or were you protecting your own butt? I mean the fact is you would have had to go out there and say, 'We don't have a plan and the response is not working and I'm the guy who's in charge of putting this plan together.'"

Brown: "Yeah I think, I have to confess I think it was a little bit of both. I mean you, you want to protect the President because you're a political appointee and so you're torn between wanting to tell the absolute truth and following those stupid talking points."

Lauer: "Yeah but those stupid talking points should be thrown out the window when people are dying."

Brown: "Amen!"

Lauer: "1700 people died on the Gulf Coast."

Brown: "That's right and that's my, to this day, that's my biggest regret."

Lauer: "You did an interview three days after the storm and you were asked about the people who were gathered in miserable conditions at the convention center and you said, 'You know what the federal government just found out about those people today.' It was alarming and infuriating because TV crews were walking to the convention center."

Brown: "Right, right."

Lauer: "They were driving in vans, rent-a-cars to the convention center and the federal government couldn't have found out about that? Why?"

Brown: "Well we had found out about it and again one of the mistakes I made was one, not getting enough sleep. I went through about a 36-hour period without any sleep and when all of those newscasters kept asking me I said, yeah we kept, we learned about it today. Well today for me was Wednesday morning after it had started Tuesday night."

Lauer: "But if you learn..."

Brown: "I misspoke..."

Lauer: "But if you learned..."

Brown: "...three times in a row."

Lauer: "But if you learned about it Wednesday morning, I mean the question that's been asked so many times over the last year is, okay the minute you learned about it, get on your walkie-talkie, get on your cell phone, get on something and say, 'I need helicopters with water.'"

Brown: "Right."

Lauer: "'I need helicopters with MREs. I need helicopters with medicine and let's get these people some help.' It didn't arrive."

Brown: "It didn't arrive. But I can tell you that's exactly what I did was I started screaming at my military aides and others to get that stuff in there but to this day it, I mean it was like, where was it? Where was it?"

Lauer: "Do you think that you have been handled, handed all of the blame for this situation? Should the President share the blame?"

Brown: "Yes."

Lauer: "Should Mayor Nagin share the blame?"

Brown: "Yes."

Lauer: "Should Governor Blanco share the blame?"

Brown: "Yes."

Lauer: "So why do you think you were the scapegoat?"

Brown: "I'm the low man on the totem pole. You just mentioned three elected officials and one political appointee."

Lauer: "So you think the President let the people of this country down in terms of his handling of Hurricane Katrina?"

Brown: "I think, look the President is a cheerleader and has the bully pulpit and the thing that bothered me the most, particularly in hindsight was the fact that he flew over New Orleans. If he had, if he had landed and stood next to me at that podium and said, 'I want everybody in the federal government to give Mike Brown everything he needs,' you and I wouldn't be talking today about this."

Lauer: "And what about the criticism of the President that he put Mike Brown in a position that he simply wasn't qualified to handle?"

Brown: "That's just baloney. Look I spent more time in my career in, in, in local government and in state government and emergency management experience and the most important thing is I handled 160 presidentially declared disasters successfully."

Lauer: "Do you wish you had never taken the job as FEMA director?"

Brown: "Well there are days, yes, but to have an opportunity to serve your president is an incredible opportunity but I think what I regret the most..."

Lauer: "You don't seem to feel that same way about that now."

Brown: "Well look it still is, it's a great opportunity but the thing I regret is I let myself down, I let the American public down because I'm a, I'm a fighter. I'm the kind of individual who will stand up and just tell the truth and for some reason in Katrina, with all of that crashing in on me I didn't do it, Matt."

Lauer: "Former FEMA Director Michael Brown. Mr. Brown, thanks for coming in today, appreciate it."

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.