- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005

With Hurricane Rita battering the Gulf Coast and the Lone Star State, there is no doubt what the top story and the headlines will be about for the next several days.

After the storm passes, how many relevant facts will be in the stories that follow? If Katrina is any indication, the real challenge will begin immediately after the tempest.

In this era of hand-portable cameras, miniature satellite uplinks and live broadcasts, television is the “instant medium.” Whether it’s a hurricane, sporting event, a congressional hearing or a war, no other form of mass communication covers an incident “as it happens” better than cable TV. Viewers can see “through the lens” what’s happening — as it happens.

But the images are fleeting, memories are short. And after the “live shot” cameras are gone, it is tempting for polemicists to use the “footage” and photos for their own purposes.

The Katrina coverage by the so-called mainstream media — both print and broadcast — is a remarkable example. The major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS all sent crews to the Gulf Coast as Katrina closed in. But only the cable news channels — led by my employer, FOX News — went to “wall-to-wall” coverage of the approaching storm and stayed with it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The older, larger and theoretically more experienced standard networks decided to continue their regular programming and cover the storm — and its disastrous consequences — on newscasts and occasional updates as a story that needed “perspective.” The assumption perhaps was that the “cable kids” were too “close” to the story.

The results should have been anticipated. While FOX News and other cable outlets sought out Coast Guard and other first responders heroically rescuing those who did not or could not evacuate, the “Big Three” descended on local politicians to start fixing blame. Cable camera crews documented the catastrophe at the Superdome as it occurred, the looting as it happened, the breakdown of law and order while it was ongoing. Though the same images were available to ABC, CBS and NBC, their general approach was to rebroadcast the footage and “wrap” it in a political patina to provide “depth.”

There had to be someone to blame for this disaster — and the logical target for most big broadcasters, newspapers and magazines became the Bush administration. While the water was still rising in New Orleans and people on the Mississippi coast were pawing through the wreckage of their demolished homes and businesses, the blame-game began in the mainstream media’s quest for relevance.

Less than 24 hours after wind and rain stopped, major networks, wire-services and newspapers were trotting out global-warming experts to show how the Bush administration approach to the Kyoto Protocol had given birth to megastorms like Katrina. Members of Congress went on the air to accuse George Bush of cutting funds for levee repair and maintenance — thus precipitating the catastrophic failure of the walls holding back the water. Emergency preparedness experts from previous administrations pontificated that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was undercut in the Bush reorganization of the Department of Homeland Security. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were provided pulpits to accuse the Bush administration of racism in failing to protect New Orleans. In short — just like the Global War on Terror — all the news is bad, and it’s all George W. Bush’s fault.

In fact, the Katrina coverage has closely paralleled how the war in Iraq has been reported. In March 2003, there were more than 700 embedded correspondents who accompanied U.S. and coalition forces in the swift victory over Saddam. No matter what the political views of the person holding the camera or the broadcasting network — the courage, compassion and decency of the American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines sent into the fight was undeniable. As with Katrina, FOX News and the cable networks dominated the coverage.

But shortly after Saddam’s statue crashed to the ground in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, most cable camera crews came home and the mainstream media took over once again. Writing their stories and broadcasting from the balconies of air-conditioned hotels, “wiser heads” offered a different perspective.

The war was all wrong, we were told. Iraqis who hated America were brought forth to describe how they were better off under Saddam. Terrorists who behead innocent hostages became “freedom fighters.” And to prove our troops really weren’t “good,” the potentates of the press beat Abu Ghraib like a rented mule for months.

Once the cable cameras were gone, all the news was bad. New schools, clean water, more electricity, elections, a democratic constitution — none of that matters. According to the “experts,” every casualty is Mr. Bush’s fault — and the only answer is to get out now.

“Get out now,” of course, was the message broadcast to people in the path of both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It’s a good plan when a potentially devastating storm is bearing down. It’s a terrible idea once the maelstrom hits — or in the midst of a war. Unfortunately, that seems to be the mainstream media’s only message to President Bush.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.

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