Media Storm

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(HOST) Hurricane Katrina has had many consequences. According to commentator Barrie Dunsmore, one of them may be a less deferential national news media.

(DUNSMORE) Reporters working for the so-called mainstream media come in many political stripes. But there are times when a major event can, in a sense, bring them together. The Vietnam War and Watergate made most reporters of the day much more skeptical and less willing to accept the Nixon White House version of events. As we soon learned, such skepticism was justified. In the years that followed, the relationship between administrations and the reporters who covered them was increasingly adversarial, reaching a climax with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment hearings.

George W. Bush had a longer than usual honeymoon period in his first term – and then came 9/11. With the country reeling from the most deadly attack on its soil since Pearl Harbor, news organizations and their reporters became as patriotic as the rest of the country. While not all news people wore flags the way Fox News anchors and reporters did, there was clearly an effort not to appear to be so critical of government policy that it could be interpreted as being disloyal. With some exceptions, this attitude carried through the invasion of Iraq and for much of what followed there. The once esteemed White House press corps, which had led the charge against Nixon and Clinton, instead was now being parodied on late night TV shows for its cowardly performance.

Katrina appears to have changed all that. The New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley put it this way: “After spending time with storm refugees in the Superdome and Convention Center, normally poised and placid TV reporters now openly deplore the government’s failure to help the victims adequately. And their outrage (is) illustrated with hauntingly edited montages of weeping mothers, sickly children and dead bodies rotting on the street.” Television was by no means alone in challenging the administration. National Public Radio did an extraordinary job of covering the event – and had no qualms about placing blame where blame was due. Most of the country’s print media have been highly critical of the president’s own personal performance – which Time Magazine described as “tone-deaf” and “flat footed.”

The vaunted White House propaganda machine run by Karl Rove tried to have it both ways by condemning the blame game even as it pointed fingers at state and local authorities. But the newly aroused White House reporters were having none of that. As one of them snapped at the president’s spokesman: “It’s not a blame game. It’s accountability.” The Washington Post’s media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote, “This kind of activist stance, which would have drawn flak had it come from American reporters in Iraq, seemed utterly appropriate when applied to the yawning gap between mounting casualties and the administration’s reassuring rhetoric.”

I believe BBC commentator Matt Wells had it about right when he said, “Good reporting lies at the heart of what is changing. Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back.”

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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