Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Providing “Balance,” and Getting it Wrong

Obviously, one of the biggest stories to come out of Katrina is the issue of federal government performance in disaster relief. This is a story, that when told straight, reflects very badly on the Bush administration. However, the mainstream press loves “balance.” In general, they are very uncomfortable saying “the Bush administration responded in a desultory and clueless way” unless they can also say that some Democrat somewhere was equally bad.

Therefore, the press is eager to buy stories about poor disaster relief performance by State and local Democratic officials. And this line of inquiry is, of course, entirely legitimate. However, press eagerness to supply balance has allowed right-wingers to circulate of some questionable stories—including stories that repeat false assertions about state or local government actions, and that falsely claim that poor federal performance in disaster relief was actually caused by poor state and local efforts.

Media Matters has been doing superb work documenting the spread of disinformation about responsibility for the inadequacy of relief efforts in the wake of Katrina. For instance, they show how Bob Williams, with the right-wing think tank Evergreen Foundation, has been falsely claiming that federal efforts were hampered because the governor of Louisiana had not requested assistance. This assertion is doubly false—the governor did request assistance three days prior to Katrina reaching land, and in any case the federal government has authority to act even in the absence of a request from the State. Despite Williams’s lack of identifiable expertise in disaster relief, he has received time on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, ABC's World News Tonight, Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, and MSNBC's Connected: Coast to Coast. Josh Marshall has documented how the false claim about Louisiana’s failure to request assistance made it into Newsweek and the Washington Post. In the latter case at least, the source for the story was a "senior Bush official."

Williams has also claimed that state and local officials urged a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans only after President Bush called to urge them to do so. The Power Line blog has repeated this tale, along with the interpretation that the President’s smart thinking saved many New Orleans residents. Britt Hume, who has been assiduously looking after Bush administration interests, has also repeated this tale. Media Matters shows that this story is unfounded, and that a press conference to announce the evacuation was about to occur when Bush made his call.