For more than a month, the American Gulf Coast has been threatened by a gigantic oil spill, caused by the April 21 explosion of a British Petroleum deepwater rig. Yet unlike five years ago — when the media were quick to put the onus on the Bush administration for its handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — for four weeks, ABC, CBS and NBC failed to scrutinize the administration’s ineffectual response to this disaster, now blasted even by such Democratic stalwarts as ex-Clinton operative James Carville.
On Wednesday’s Good Morning America, Carville accused the President of “political stupidity” for not making the oil spill a top priority. “It just looks like he’s not involved in this! Man, you have got to get down here and take control of this! Put somebody in charge of this and get this thing moving! We’re about to die down here!” Carville specifically faulted Obama for not deploying sufficient federal resources to protect the valuable marshes in southern Louisiana.
While the media fancy themselves as government watchdogs, such criticisms were virtually absent from the first four weeks of the networks’ oil spill coverage. MRC analysts studied all 157 stories about the spill aired on ABC, CBS and NBC’s evening newscasts from April 21 through May 20. We discovered that only two of those stories (a measly 1%) actually centered on evaluations of how Obama and his top officials were handling the crisis, while another seven stories included minor references to criticisms of the administration. Thus, in the first full month after the spill, 95 percent of network evening news stories were devoid of any criticism of the President and top officials.
In contrast, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast five years ago, the networks waited barely 72 hours to blast the federal response. NBC’s Brian Williams, on the September 1, 2005 Nightly News, channeled the complaints of those who demanded to know: “Why isn’t more being done, and faster?” Over on CBS that night, anchor Bob Schieffer cast the President as “under growing criticism for a slow response,” while correspondent John Roberts (now with CNN) touted how “editorial pages across the nation aimed sharp barbs at Mr. Bush.”
This time around, rather than expecting action from the President, network reporters chronicled Obama’s “frustration” and “anger” at slow cleanup efforts as if he was a concerned bystander rather than the nation’s Chief Executive. On the April 29 NBC Nightly News, correspondent Anne Thompson empathized: “Frustration with the pace of the cleanup reaches all the way to the White House.” Two weeks later, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric declared: “President Obama doesn’t often show his anger in public but he did today....[he] blasted the companies responsible.” The same day on NBC, White House correspondent Chuck Todd cheered: “...the President decided it was finally time to get angry...”
The networks’ accommodative stance only began to wane on May 21, after an astonishing four-week grace period. From May 21 through May 24, the networks aired eight pieces critiquing Obama’s performance — barely one-fifth of their oil spill coverage during those days (37 stories), but a marked shift from their earlier role as White House stenographers.
On the May 22 Nightly News, anchor Lester Holt suggested Obama’s appointment of a presidential commission “may be too little, too late for many frustrated and angry residents of the Gulf.” On that night’s CBS Evening News, White House correspondent Bill Plante saw “an increasingly serious political problem” for the White House, as “some in the President’s own party are urging the administration to do more than just continue to rely on BP.” For her May 24 broadcast of ABC’s World News, anchor Diane Sawyer flew to the Gulf of Mexico and spoke of “no leadership from Washington”:
Tonight on World News, from the Gulf coast of Louisiana. Last chance. The governor tells the White House and oil company to stop the spill or get out of his way....Good evening, from Louisiana. All day long, the people of the Gulf have told us they want Americans to remember this day as the day they said, enough is enough. If there is no leadership from Washington, no help from the oil company, they’re going to try to save the land themselves.
Belatedly, the media have now discovered weaknesses in the Obama administration’s handling of oil spill. But if this accident had occurred on George W. Bush’s watch, does anyone doubt that the networks would have demanded action much sooner?