Friday, September 02, 2005

NYT: "Democrats and Others Criticize White House's Response to Disaster" (Elisabeth Bumiller)

When is a disaster a misfortune and when is it an injustice? . . . If the dreadful event is caused by the external forces of nature, it's a misfortune and we must resign ourselves to our suffering. Should, however, some ill-intentioned agent, human or supernatural, have brought it about, then it is an injustice and we may express indignation and outrage.

That's from Judith N. Shklar's The Faces of Injustice. We've noted that book before (several times) and Shklar. But it's apparently one lost on the Times. Elisabeth Bumiller's "Democrats and Others Criticize White House's Response to Disaster" in this morning's New York Times reveals so much that is wrong with the paper:

"I hope people don't play politics during this period of time," Mr. Bush told Diane Sawyer of ABC's Good Morning America in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. "This is a natural disaster, the likes of which our country may have never seen before."
But the politics of natural disaster were close to the surface as Democrats said that the crisis had become a political catastrophe as daylong images on television showed refugees desperate for food and water in the richest nation on earth.*

I know the Times would rather play it both ways and that many reporters are basically the equivalent of general majors in college. When the worst aspects of the two combine, it's not pretty. (Call this an op-ed.) But if the Times wants to report on whether or not the issue involves national disaster aspects only or whether it involves human failure, then they should understand the basics as well as the fact that they need a framework greater than what they normally use. A hurrican swept through, a tragedy. What we're dealing with now, an injustice. There is a difference.

This isn't an attack on Bumiller (or I'd try to be comical) but it is saying that reporters and the paper need to be a little smarter. This article is not a "live from the aftermath" report. This article revolves around a basic issue and the Times can't grasp it. (Times, not Bumiller because this goes beyond her.) Playing he said/she said doesn't illuminate the issue, it only wastes space.

This is peeve and people can feel free to disagree but a natural disaster is now a political issue (that's the whole point of the article in the paper) so you should report within the framework required by the topic. (It's similar, my peeve, to Elaine's when journalists with little understanding of science or medicine can't grasp what they're reporting on but lay people -- such as myself on medicine or science -- will read it and think, "Wow, that person really knows what they are talking about" while people like Elaine will grind their teeth and wonder why the paper wasted space on ill informed writing.)

A visitor wrote to wonder why, when we covered and noted the Times' coverage of the tsunami, we've done so little with their coverage of this? Because the community's not impressed. I've got a 12K e-mail from Yazz with his opinions of how awful this coverage has been in every area. (It's also true that the tsunami began when a number of people were on vacation so we noted it. We're not interested in discussing something that's discussed everywhere else. If someone else grabs something, great. We'll link to it and note it.) Rob thinks it's pedestrian coverage. (And if nothing big is in Saturday's Times, we'll note some of the bad coverage tomorrow.)

Is it a misfortune or an injustice? That's at the core of the topic Bumiller's article intends to address. "Here's a quote, there's a quote, everywhere a quote-quote" doesn't illuminate the issues involved. When the tsunami broke, the Times stood out with first rate coverage and one of the questions this community had was whether the outstanding reporting resulted from the fact that reporters like Amy Waldman and others who weren't usually featured prominently on a regular basis were allowed to step forward and show what they could do? The coverage of the hurricane and the aftermath appears to give us the answer that, yes, the superior coverage resulted from the big names being on vacation.

Within the context of some policy being debated, Bumiller's article would be standard for the Times. That's not the context of this article. (It wasn't the context of the tsunami coverage either.) The issue may be larger than the Times is able to deal with (again, no surprise, we're talking about the equivalent of general majors here). But this story advances nothing. This story illuminates nothing. It's a waste of space.

If the paper feels that the issues belong on the op-ed pages or in editorials, then don't run it in a news story. I personally do not feel that the topic is beyond news coverage. It is beyond what appears in the paper today.

I'm also wondering how the following made it into print:

"Seventy-two hours into this, to be openly posturing about this, to be attacking the president, is not only despicable and wrong, it's not politically smart," said one White House official who asked not to be named because he did not want to be seen as talking about the crisis in political terms. "Normal people at home understand that it's not the president who's responsible for this, it's the hurricane. This will get better, hour by hour and day by day."

The person needs to be identified or the Times needs to stop advancing White House spin. There's no need for that nonsense quote to appear. It's factually questionable (when hasn't the Bully Boy played politics with any issue?). And it is the official-unofficial response. If it's going to be run, the person needs to be identified. Other than to slam those raising issues, the quote serves no purpose.

Lyle e-mails to note Matthew Rothschild's "Katrina Compounded" (The Progressive). The Times would say that he's doing opinion journalism but that Bumiller can't do that as a reporter for the news section. That doesn't wash because the topic covered demands something more than the dueling quotes the paper's grown so fond of. From Rothschild's "Katrina Compounded:"

The scope of the disaster that goes by the name Hurricane Katrina is difficult to fathom at a distance. All the video on TV and all the photographs and words in newspapers, magazines, and on-line cannot adequately describe the loss. A million people homeless, a death toll likely to rise over 1,000, a great city submerged, a region devastated--the enormity was too great to take in.
Even in the first seventy-two hours after Katrina came ashore near New Orleans, it became obvious that government had failed, at every level.
If ever there was an occasion for government intervention, this was it. People were drowning. People were stranded. People were cooped up in the Superdome in disgusting conditions. People were on the highway in the baking sun with no food or water or facilities or medicine. And none in sight--for themselves, or their elderly parents, or their infants.
The state and local authorities were woefully unprepared, and the Bush Administration responded with a lethal tardiness.
While Katrina was without question an extraordinarily vicious storm, the vast majority of people who died did so not because of Katrina but because of a laissez-faire federal government with skewed priorities.

[*Note: I agree with Kat, the Times needs to update their style manual. TV shows, album titles, et al should not have quotes around them. In the case of the music coverage you get a song title and an album title with quotes. It's ridiculous that at this late date the paper of record still can't figure out how to aid the reader, quickly, in determining which is being noted. In the paper, this appears: "Good Morning America." I've put in italics, as it should have been, as they do with their book titles.]

Remember, this morning on CSPAN:

And watch [Katrina] vanden Heuvel TOMORROW morning, Friday, on CSPAN's Washington Journal at 9:00am taking viewer questions on Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and other topical issues. The program airs at different times nationwide so check local listsings or the website below for confirmation.

As noted earlier, that's today and 9:00 am is eastern time. Click here to watch Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Nation) live online at 9:00 am eastern time.

Also, Jonah just e-mailed to note this from NYC Indymedia:

RNC Retrospective Event This Friday
7:00pm, at Bluestockings Bookstore, hosted by NYC Indymedia and Wakeup Call Radio
By Compiled
"For many of us, it was the most focused and active we have ever seen New York City. So what came of it? And what are we doing now? Come share your thoughts at this
moderated public discussion, hosted by Wake Up Call and the New York City Independent Media Center."

The e-mail address for this site is