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Covering Katrina: How Media Control Faltered

Covering Katrina: How Media Control Faltered for a Moment

By Ramzy Baroud

“Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media,” read a title of one USA Today article, in reference to the deadly hurricane, which struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, and the media’s purportedly gutsy coverage of the government failures.

There is no denying that some TV and newspaper reporters, especially those reporting from the field have indeed exhibited both courage and decided professionalism in the way they covered the disaster’s aftermath, in raising critical questions and in conveying with honesty the overwhelming feelings of anger and betrayal felt by the stricken victims.

This historic media role was almost completely sidelined during the US war on Iraq, and it continues to be muffled as the administration’s military blunders are carried on elsewhere. However, getting into a self-congratulatory mode and convincing oneself that the media has indeed reclaimed its rightful designation as the voice of the voiceless, a seeker of truth and an honest interpreter of reality would be misleading, to say the least.

What the USA Today’s article and most of what has been written about this topic did not address, was whether the US mainstream media played a meaningful and consistently adversarial role in the past as far as the government’s domestic and international conduct is concerned. Of course such an inflated assertion was implied, but without much elaboration. It also sounded as if the role of the media — adversarial or conformist — was exclusively determined by reporters who might have decided to "show their human face as they questioned the (government’s) slow response" to the tragedy.

But of course there is more to this, a backdrop that USA Today and others opted not to embellish deeming it perhaps superfluous. The missing backdrop is that strange, yet mutually advantageous relationship that positions the mainstream media as another government mouthpiece in times of war and defender of official policies, whether by giving prominence to the official narrative or by adopting the administration’s narrative as the standard of reference.

While the Vietnam War, like Katrina, presented a glimmer of hope that the media might be reconsidering its alliances and deserting its traditional role as a mouthpiece for both the government and its wealthy owners and financiers, it was also a wake-up call to those who wanted the media to maintain its orthodoxy, its decided bias.

Successive US governments have clearly understood the importance of controlling the media as opposed to managing political crises invited by unrestrained media. Former President Ronald Regan’s administration claimed mastery over the craft, as did President Bush. "The key principle used by both Regan and Bush is that if you can control where and when journalists can report, you can control the imagery and its emotional impact on the public," according to an article published by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

It comes as no surprise then that the shiniest moments in American journalism were those that took place away from the government’s microscope. Considering that journalists reached the hard-hit areas in New Orleans not hours, but days before government help arrived, audiences managed to get a glance at some decent journalism.

Instances such as these can be very costly for a government, which exploits the media to persuade citizens that its objectives are entirely motivated by honorable principles. In the Iraq invasion, packaged by the Bush administration and promoted by major US news networks as Operation Iraqi Freedom, the government couldn’t take any chances at revealing the authentic motivation behind the war. It simply could not afford it. While propaganda has always been a prime component of US foreign policy, never before did US officials so blatantly broadcast their intent to lead a campaign of falsifications and deceit. And while the independence of the media has always been so aberrantly compromised by various business and official control mechanisms, never before were reporters enlisted (embedded) with army units, while ex-army generals bombarded the US public with all sorts of misinformation, without questioning the government’s motives and its methods. Those who dared question were dealt with swiftly.

>From the onset, army press pools excluded those who have a reputation of failing to adhere to the government agenda: independent journalists and alternative media. Those embedded journalists were expected to conform to a process of outright censorship. No reports were written or dispatched without obtaining clearance. Journalists and news agencies who risked reporting the war without the US army’s blessings were virtually ‘enemy combatants’. The fatal bombing of various media offices by US forces, including the Palestine Hotel (headquarters for many independent journalists) in the first days of the war and the close range shooting of many press personnel in the following days and months, all attest to that.

The war on Iraq was also a war on the freedom of the press, or whatever could be salvaged of it, considering that the corporate media decidedly participated in the same process that was aimed at coercing the media and free press. At home the scene was equally grim. Self-censorship was at an all time high. Those who dared challenge the rosy view of war were reprimanded, disciplined and even fired.

But did Katrina indeed save the day, liberate the media from its implicit and overt loyalty to the government, to the business interests that own and finance it? The answer is unfortunately ‘no.’ Still the tragedy was an important reminder of the convoluted efforts involved in shaping the imagery and controlling the narrative. It shows us how the absence of such mechanisms can prove liberating for both honest reporters and public opinion. It created more pressure on an administration so eager to rush to war, thousands of miles away, and yet so idle in responding to a devastating and predictable crisis in its own country. It raised questions about the cost of war, about class and race and ultimately crashed the president’s approval ratings.

A truly free press is a menacing threat that the Bush administration has labored to avoid at any cost. It has done so in Iraq and will likely continue as long as there is a reason to misrepresent and a motive to fabricate. And considering the administration’s deepening crises in Iraq and New Orleans, causes for deceit remain plentiful.


- Ramzy Baroud, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. His forthcoming book, Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising is being published by Pluto Press, London.

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