Now that President Bush has stepped up to take responsibility for a slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, I think it's time for the news media to admit that most of them were slow to realize the size and significance of the disaster as it unfolded.
I've seen too much back-slapping on the part of newspapers and television anchors over the coverage of the hurricane and flooding in New Orleans. Yes, there have been many compelling stories and photographs coming from the Gulf Coast the last two weeks.
But that's what we do. Cover the news.
There has also been quite a bit of talk about the news media finally living up to its watchdog role by calling federal authorities on the carpet for their response to the disaster. Several commentators have said the media have given President Bush an easy time on too many issues, and now the hard questions were being asked about the woeful performance of the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Homeland Security Department.
Again, I say, "Big deal." Don't tell us what happened. Tell us what's going to happen.
One newspaper did that job - The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. Its series of stories last year and continuing coverage of the inadequacy of the levee system, as well as the lack of federal money to upgrade it, was the kind of journalism a newspaper is supposed to provide.
It also has a message for President Bush, but more about that later. Right now, I want to examine the news media's own response to the storm.
A story in the Wall Street Journal laid out the timeline for some of the reporting of the breach in the levee along the 17th Street Canal, which occurred early in the morning of Monday, Aug. 29.
The Times-Picayune was reporting online by 2 p.m. that day that City Hall had confirmed the breach. Aside from the hurricane itself, that was the most significant news of the day because of the disaster it foretold for New Orleans.
But for most of that day and into Tuesday, many major news organizations were acting as if New Orleans had been spared.
Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith was quoted as reporting Monday afternoon, "But late word is, the levees did hold." On ABC's World News Tonight, Charles Gibson said "entire neighborhoods are under water, but the levees held. The nightmare scenario of an entire city under water did not happen," according to the Journal article.
Could they have known amid all the confusion?
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning at 8:14 a.m. Monday for New Orleans. "A levee breach occurred along the industrial canal at Tennessee Street. 3 to 8 feet of water is expected due to the breach," it said.
How they could have missed that, I don't know. The Times-Picayune didn't miss it, but most everybody else did.
I know the Nevada Appeal's front-page story on Tuesday morning doesn't mention a levee break, although The Associated Press was reporting a breach by Monday afternoon. Even when Keith Tanoos, the Appeal's circulation director, called me to ask how bad it was in New Orleans, I didn't know. Like most people, I was still thinking the city had largely been spared by Katrina.
Unfortunately, the FEMA folks were even further behind. I don't know if they were relying on the news media for their information, which is a scary thought, but even then they weren't up to date.
There is the well-known instance of former FEMA head Michael Brown being unaware of the tragedy unfolding in the Superdome and convention center 24 hours after television had shown pictures to the nation. There was also Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff not realizing a week later that the levees had broken Monday morning, not Monday night.
The National Weather Service, to its credit, appears to have been on top of the situation. It did what it was supposed to do: Alert the nation to a levee breach and imminent flooding of New Orleans. A lone voice in the wilderness.
The Times-Picayune, it seems to me, is in the best position to cast a critical eye on the events around it. The reporting from the New Orleans newspaper - which in a not-so-funny bit of irony has directions for "how to report a wet paper" on its Web site - has been stellar, including the foreboding stories on the weakness of the levee system.
I'll leave you with what the newspaper had to say in an open letter to President Bush:
"Mr. President, we're well aware that we cannot rely on government alone, that we must help ourselves. Already our people have begun to do so: rescuing, sheltering and raising money for the most desperate victims. But faced with a disaster like this hurricane, no community can fend for itself.
"Many of us cannot return to our homes because they were flooded, due to inadequate levees and an inadequate effort to restore the coastline of Louisiana. These are problems that successive administrations, including yours, have ignored. All of us deserve a chance to return to decent homes.
"New Orleanians also deserve to know that our federal government has made an all-out effort to ensure that a disaster like Katrina cannot happen again. Such an effort should include concrete and dirt, creative thinking, and a commitment that will last for years."
- Barry Smith is editor for the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 881-1221.