The Backlash Begins

The American media seems to live in a constant crisis of confidence. Remember just a few short weeks ago when reporters were giving themselves a tentative pat on the back for a job well done in covering Katrina? Even that perpetual critic, CJR Daily, tipped our hat to reporters for getting down and dirty along the Gulf Coast amid almost impossible conditions. From television reporters to print scribes, the Fourth Estate was in the trenches, and it seemed as if it was finally taking public officials to task for failures of leadership and their seemingly chronic inability to form a coherent plan.

Slate’s Jack Shafer was one of many to document the instances of television anchors confronting politicians and federal appointees back on September 2, and many of us took some small comfort in finally watching incompetent public officials face the firing line.

On September 16, the AP practically fell all over itself lauding NBC anchor Brian Williams, stating that he “led the charge” and his coverage “could solidify his spot as network news’ top anchor.” It also wrote that “[h]undreds of reporters, in all media, did heroic work on the Gulf Coast in the deadly storm’s aftermath.” Salon, for its part, put together a video montage called “Reporters Gone Wild,” featuring Ted Koppel, Shepard Smith, Anderson Cooper and Tim Russert, among others, lambasting public officials — to their faces — about the government’s slow and unsteady response to the tragedy.

There were dozens of similar reports hailing reporters for a job well done, and despite the tendency to slide into hyperbole, the pieces were pretty close to being on the money.

But all this praise seems merely to have set the media up for a fall.

Specifically, as we noted earlier today, the New Orleans Times-Picayune (we hope these guys have their shoes shined for award season) and the Los Angeles Times have shot down some of the more sensationalistic, and dire, coverage that came out of New Orleans in those heady early days after Katrina blew though, and, as we wrote yesterday, truculent bloggers are eager to “get granular” and smack the press around for their coverage of the story since Katrina bid her violent farewell.

Now, if you get a story wrong, you get it wrong, and you ought to be called to account — if only by yourself. But in what looks to be shaping up as a bandwagon rushing to blame the media for repeating some of the exaggerated claims of violence in New Orleans, let’s not forget the great work those same reporters did in covering the story as a whole. For example, what is already getting lost in the rush to rewrite recent history is the fact that, thanks to their persistence, television reporters were the first to draw the public’s (and government’s) attention to the horrific conditions thousands of refugees were experiencing at the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. It’s worth noting that reporters were there well before local or federal relief efforts were even being contemplated.

Also, let’s not lose sight of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey conducted September 8-11, which found that 77 percent of Americans said the media acted “responsibly” in its coverage of Katrina, while 20 percent felt otherwise.

It’s just as important to remember all the stories reporters got right this time as it is to hold them responsible for what they got wrong. Because, in the end, this was one of those all-too-rare moments when journalism rose to the occasion, and, pretty much en masse, delivered what not so many years ago was considered its reason for being — a public service.

Paul McLeary

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