Holding Authority to Account

As New Orleans is gripped by chaos and misery, some national television reporters are beginning finally to show their mettle — and to vent the frustrations of a nation stunned by days of inaction on the part of local, state and federal authorities.

Last night, Ted Koppell spoke with Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who is charged with coordinating disaster relief for a dozen federal agencies and the Red Cross. In an exchange that should give pause to anyone who says that “old media” is dead, Koppell went right for Brown from the start — while managing to keep the tone professional. He began by asking just how many refugees were trying to take shelter at the city’s convention center — which, according to reports, had been abandoned by police, and where anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 people had congregated.

Brown: Actually, I have sent a general of the First Army to find out the truth of what’s down there because we first learned of the convention center, we, being the federal government, today. He says the number’s around 25,000.

Koppell: Okay. So, it sounds as though the mayor who said 15 to 25,000 was closer in touch. I’ve heard you say during course of the evening on a number of interviews you just found out about it today. Don’t you watch television or listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today.

Brown: We learned about it factually today that that what is existed …

Koppell: You have chaos and anarchy breaking out in a number of different places in New Orleans, it would seem the first thing is to get good solid combat troops like the 82nd airborne or 101st in there. These are guys who are ready to move immediately. Instead you send National Guardsmen and it’s taking time. You don’t have time.

Brown: … there will soon be 30,000 armed National Guard troops in there to restore order, to take control of the facilities and allow us to do our job.

Koppell: Mr. Brown, you know, forgive me … But here we are, essentially five days after the storm hit, and you are talking about what’s going to happen in the next couple of days. You guys do war games. You have gamed out what is going to happen … to say, as the president did, well, we didn’t know the dams were going to break or didn’t know the levees were going to break is factually true, of course. You couldn’t know it, but you could have assumed it … Why didn’t you?

When Brown explained how surprised he was that not everyone left the city before the storm, and that FEMA was currently trying to help those who didn’t, Koppel shot back, “Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead. They’re beyond your help. Some of these people have died because they needed insulin and couldn’t get it … You say you were surprised by the fact that so many people didn’t make it out. It’s no surprise to anyone that you had at least 100,000 people in the city of New Orleans who are dirt poor [and couldn’t afford to evacuate the city].”

Koppell concluded the grilling with a professional flourish, while taking a shot at the Bush administration’s dismal record on the tragedy so far: “Mr. Brown, again, forgive me for beating up on you there, but you’re the only guy from the federal government these days that’s coming out to take your medicine.”

This should be unremarkable — a journalist doing what he’s supposed to do, telling the truth and forcefully holding government officials to account. That it is, instead, remarkable is both a tribute to Koppell and a rebuke to all too many of his cable and broadcast colleagues.

Certainly there are rescue workers, soldiers, police officers, firefighters and citizens performing much more immediate, and life-saving tasks on the ground — but given the confusion, the incompetence and the seeming indifference shown by FEMA and government officials in general over the past five days (Condi Rice spent the week here in Manhattan, going to Broadway shows and doing some shoe shopping), Koppell’s grilling of Michael Brown felt exactly right.

Paul McLeary

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