Newscasters, sick of official lies and stonewalling, finally start snarling.

Media criticism.
Sept. 2 2005 5:36 PM

The Rebellion of the Talking Heads

Newscasters, sick of official lies and stonewalling, finally start snarling.

Anderson Cooper: no more Mr. Nice Guy. Click on image to enlarge.
Anderson Cooper: no more Mr. Nice Guy

A former deputy chief of FEMA told Knight Ridder Newspapers yesterday (Sept. 1) that there "are two kinds of levees—the ones that breached and the ones that will be breached." A similar aphorism applies to broadcasters: They come in two varieties, the ones that have gone stark, raving mad on air and the ones who will.

In the last couple of days, many of the broadcasters reporting from the bowl-shaped toxic waste dump that was once the city of New Orleans have stopped playing the role of wind-swept wet men facing down a big storm to become public advocates for the poor, the displaced, the starving, the dying, and the dead.

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Last night, CNN's Anderson Cooper abandoned the old persona to throttle Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a live interview. (See the video or read the transcript.)

"Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now?" Cooper opened.

As if campaigning before the local Democratic Ladies' Club lunch, Landrieu sing-songed back, "Anderson, there will be plenty of time to discuss all of those issues, about why, and how, and what, and if." She went on to thank President Bush, President Clinton, former President Bush, Senators Frist and Reid, and "all leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi, and Alabama, "for their help.

Her condescending filibuster continued: "Anderson, tonight, I don't know if you've heard—maybe you all have announced it—but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating."

Cooper suspended the traditional TV rules of decorum and, approaching tears of fury, said:

Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.

And when they hear politicians slap—you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.

Do you get the anger that is out here? …

I mean, I know you say there's a time and a place for, kind of, you know, looking back, but this seems to be the time and the place. I mean, there are people who want answers, and there are people who want someone to stand up and say, "You know what? We should have done more. Are all the assets being brought to bear?"

Landrieu kept her cool, probably because she's in Baton Rouge, while the stink of corpses caused Cooper to tremble in rage all the way to the commercial break.

Yesterday, on NPR's All Things Considered, Robert Siegel didn't get medieval on Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, in part because the microphones there are specially fabricated to decant all emotion from the voices of their reporters. But Siegel aggressively blocked every escape route that Chertoff took to evade hard questions about "corpses" and "human waste" piling up at the city's convention center, where thousands were stranded without provisions. (Siegel gets tough at about minute four in the audio clip.)

Siegel kept asking Chertoff how long it would take to serve or rescue these people, and a couple times Chertoff answered that the government was doing a great job at the Superdome.

When he cautioned Siegel about the danger of relying on "anecdotal" "rumors" of people in dire straits, Siegel said, no—these are facts presented by reporters who have covered war zones. There are 2,000 people at the convention center in need, he said. Having finally broken through the steel plate that is Chertoff's skull, the secretary confessed he hadn't heard those reports—reports that the television networks were documenting, live, with their cameras. Chertoff promised he'd look into the matter.

Several readers directed me to CNN reporter Miles O'Brien's hard-boiled interview with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in which he repeatedly invited the governor to agree with him that the federal government had "dropped the ball." When Barbour demurred on this and other points of culpability, O'Brien came back at him without the politesse reporters usually extend to dissembling pols.

I recall Andrea Mitchell all but editorializing on NBC the other night about Congress taking its sweet time to reconvene and pass a hurricane-relief bill … Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith chasing after a mute police officer down the New Orleans freeway overpass and asking in outrage when the stranded would get help … and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough in Biloxi transforming himself into the voice of the disenfranchised to put in a good word for the looters:

You got to understand that these are people who have young babies who haven't had water in four days, in some cases, haven't had formula, haven't had basic necessities. I just wonder what you would do, what I would do if we were in a situation where our 15-month-old child or our 2-year-old baby needed something to stay alive. I don't know what you would do. I know I would do anything it took to get what they needed.

Now, I should be getting it from the federal government if I am in New Orleans, from the state government. But I will tell you what. It is amateur hour, and it has been amateur hour over the past four or five days. This is completely different, friends, from the way the crises were handled in Florida last year, four hurricanes, two of them major, it was handled with ruthless efficiency. I know. I was there. That is not happening tonight in New Orleans.

This morning the discontent spread to the anchor booth at CNN, as Wonkette notes, when Soledad O'Brien openly mocked FEMA in an interview with its director, Michael Brown:

As you can tell, the situation clearly is deteriorating. You've got armed bandits roving the streets. They're heavily armed. You've got people living out on the streets with absolutely no protection, no help whatsoever, no food, no water. How many armed National Guardsmen do you have on the ground right now? …

How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting? …

FEMA has been on the ground for four days, going into the fifth day. Why no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck. …

It's five days that FEMA has been on the ground. The head of police says it's been five days that FEMA has been there. The mayor, the former mayor, putting out SOS's on Tuesday morning, crying on national television, saying please send in some troops. So the idea that, yes, I understand that you're feeding people and trying to get in there now, but it's Friday. It's Friday. …

CNN anchor Jack Cafferty growled about the media coverage of Katrina's victims yesterday on Wolf Blitzer's The Situation Room, name-checking me and citing my Wednesday column about the broadcasters' failure to acknowledge the race and economic class of the hardest-hit.

Said Cafferty:

We knew it was coming. And yet, the poorest and the neediest and the most helpless of those in New Orleans, well, they're still there, aren't they? Despite the many angles of this tragedy—and lord knows there've been a lot of them in New Orleans—there is a great big elephant in the living room that the media seems content to ignore.

That would be until now. Slate.com's Jack Shafer wrote today in his column that television coverage has shied away from talking about race and class. Shafer says that we in the media are ignoring the fact that almost all of the victims in New Orleans are black and poor. And he's right. Almost every person we've seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, to the looters, to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor.

Many of them didn't follow the evacuation orders because they didn't have the means to get out of town. They just couldn't do it. A lot of them are sick, a lot of them don't have cars, a lot of them just didn't have the means to leave "The Big Easy." And they're still there.

This gave the Washington-based Blitzer a perfect opening to comment on race and class, but he stumbled and fell into a "Campanis moment." While airing file footage of victims trudging through hip-deep water looking for help, Blitzer, no racist, said:

You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, as Jack Cafferty just pointed out, so tragically, so many of these people, almost all of them that we see, are so poor and they are so black, and this is going to raise lots of questions for people who are watching this story unfold. [Emphasis added.] [Watch the video.]

(Note to Blitzer: You might be one of those guys, like Campanis, who shouldn't talk about race extemporaneously. Next time, try channeling your outrage from the pages of a well-thought-out news script.)

The rebellion of the talking heads reached its culmination today as CNN.com contrasted "the official version" of events in New Orleans with its "in-the-trenches" account by its reporters and authoritative sources. Muted compared to the on-air growling, the Web story still portrays the government as a pack of liars, or worse, as bumbling idiots. The broadcasters' angry dispatches break with the "public face" they usually give their work: polite, patient, neutral, generous. A steady diet of such confrontational reporting would probably be as edifying as a Jerry Springer show. But when the going gets this tough—when government incompetence and lies become so insurmountable—sometimes the only way to get the story is by getting mad.

******

Get this: Rush Limbaugh called me a liberal on his show yesterday for my Wednesday column about the news broadcasters' general neglect of race and class. Said Limbaugh, "The whole purpose of this story for Mr. Shafer and these stories on these lower level websites that hopefully they think will percolate to the mainstream press is to eventually indict the American way of life, to indict the American culture, to indict the American society as inherently unfair and racist." I can't wait to impress my friends at the American Prospect by sending the transcript over. Meanwhile, call me a communist, a fascist, a neo-con, an anarcho-syndicalist, or late to dinner via e-mail: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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