The Media Finds its Spine

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many journalists seem to be congratulating themselves for finding their spine. Preening with new-found bravado, they'll come right out and say that, in response to the bungled relief effort in New Orleans, they've really given it to President Bush and his cronies. They're holding the administration to account, they say, and aren't they doing a good job of it.

"We've distinguished ourselves," Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said last week on the "Today" show. "Katrina Rekindles Adversarial Media," a headline in USA Today said, as though it were a thing of pride that reporters, who are supposedly society's watchdogs, had suddenly remembered to bare their teeth.

To me, it rings hollow. It's like a cop helping a little old lady across the street and then getting a medal for it. He's SUPPOSED to help little old ladies across the street, just as reporters are supposed to point out the inadequacies, the fumbles and the boneheadedness of public officials, no matter who they are.

This orgy of self-congratulation follows the real embarrassment that many reporters did not adequately - or in some cases, even remotely - question Mr. Bush's ever-shifting rationale for going to war in Iraq.

In a recent website posting, an organization called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, which watches the watchdogs, took a dim view of the media's hubris over their Katrina coverage: "While a press corps that openly challenges the political elite would be a positive development," it said, "readers and viewers should question why reporters who are demonstrably angry and are covering this story aggressively have been so rarely moved by other events."

In yesterday's New York Times, David Carr wrote that it was "a grand thing that during the most terrible days of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters found their gag reflex and stopped swallowing pat excuses from public officials."

However, Carr said, the media may have gone overboard. Many of the reported instances of murder, carjacking, rape, and assaults that filled the airwaves and newspapers have yet to be established or proved.

"The fact that some of these rumors were repeated by overwhelmed local officials does not completely get the news media off the hook," Carr said.

In today's Washington Post, columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that, in covering Katrina, television, in particular, "rose to become a force for good instead of a force for the evil of happy-faced oversimplification, to which the medium so frequently succumbs." The question, Robinson asked, is where does television news go from here? "Will CNN, MSNBC and Fox go back to their incessant breathless reports about MWW? (That's Missing White Women, of course.)" Will the broadcast networks go back to chasing elusive viewers with evening newscasts that feature soft stories about trends and lifestyles, as opposed to hard news? Or, Robinson asked, will the Katrina coverage spur television, with its unique power, to use its rediscovered aggressiveness and emotion to cover the other great stories of our time?"

Having said all this, of course, it's worth noting that it was journalists who first predicted the scenario that has unfolded so horribly on the Gulf Coast, even it they were ignored by public officials. And many reporters have indeed done extraordinary work covering Katrina and its aftermath, and have brought home to millions of people the astonishing reality of the destruction, in a way that the administration's spin doctors and excuse-makers never would. But we have a very long way to go before we can say, yes, that was a job well done.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan