The Wages of Katrina

First we had the reporters lashed to trees, braving Katrina’s winds along the Gulf Coast, then we had the dispatches from inside New Orleans about how the city had escaped, then the stories of the rising water followed by inept recovery efforts.

Now we have the fight over the reconstruction plans. While much of the press may be giving a one-over-lightly to some aspects of the plan, the blogosphere sure isn’t. picks up on a part of the plan that would allow companies to pay workers less than the prevailing wage:

Bush signed an executive order suspending the Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law, in effect guaranteeing a wage cut for tens of thousands of workers who will eventually sweat to rebuild the stricken region. Just days later it was announced that no-bid contracts were awarded to Bush donors and supporters, Halliburton, Bechtel National, and Shaw Group. Not only were these lucrative contracts not subject to bidding, they were awarded on a “cost-plus” basis which provides a built-in profit regardless of how much is spent. And on the morning of Bush’s New Orleans address, the New York Times reported that a bill in the Senate would allow the EPA to suspend all environmental regulations across the Gulf Coast and that the president’s chief political advisor Karl Rove would be in charge of the government-wide reconstruction effort. … It’s already becoming clear who will sacrifice so that others will be rewarded.

The Davis-Bacon Act mandates that contractors pay the prevailing local wage on projects financed with federal tax dollars. Now that it has been suspended, contractors can pay workers the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. Kartik’s World provides some background on how the act was set aside so quickly and quietly: “While the bodies of New Orleans were still piling up, commercial contractors and developers swung into action on Capitol Hill. Florida’s own Congressman, Tom Feeny, no stranger to developers’ money, helped lead the charge. He and 34 other Republicans demanded the repeal of the Davis-Bacon labor law only days after the hurricane cut the heart out of the Gulf Coast area.”

Socratic Gadfly decides to hand in a set of grades on the government’s handling and media’s coverage of the hurricane so far, giving the “mainstream media” a “D” — with the caveat that their grade might still be falling.

The first couple of days of coverage, with TV news doing what it does well, were great — both for hurricane-site coverage and an overview of what Bush wasn’t doing.

But the mainstream media then went back to its earlier passiveness in the face of Bush, failing to ask tough follow-up questions to its earlier tough questions.

But it wasn’t only the big boys Gadfly is unhappy with. He gives the “non-mainstream media” (whatever that may be) a “D- (conservative)/D+ (liberal).”

On the media navel-gazing beat: Today the New York Times launched its much-feared “Times Select” initiative, forcing readers to pay for access to some of the Times’ online features. Imperfect Mommy seems to sum up the sentiments of a lot of readers who aren’t happy about the change but will probably pony up anyway: “So yes, now you have to pay to get the good stuff. I know I shouldn’t have such expectations, but I have gotten so used to reading those things every morning and now I have to pay for them. You can still read a lot of the regular articles, but all my favorites — Dowd, Friedman, Krugman, Rich, etc. will be for fee. $8 per month or $50 per year. … That just sucks. But I’ll probably pay.”

Good Morning, Wood is also unsure about the whole thing, writing, “The Times’ columnists have been a part of my daily routine for years now, but I find myself wondering if I really want to pay for the privilege of reading them. It’s not like there is a dearth of other political and social commentary for free on the Web. Plus, I already pay for the same thing on Salon.”

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.