Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency
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Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath exhibited one of the most astonishing media spectacles in US history. Houses and towns along the Gulf coast in Louisiana and Mississippi were destroyed and flood surges wreaked havoc miles inland. New Orleans was buried in water and for several days, the crowds in the Superdome and Convention Center were not given food, water, or evacuation and there were reports of fighting, rape, robbery, and death. Indeed, no federal or state troops were sent to the city in the early days of the disaster, and thousands were trapped in their homes as the flood waters rose and there were widespread images of looting and crime.
Just as President Bush remained transfixed reading “My Pet Goat” to a Florida audience of schoolchildren after 9/11, a spectacle preserved on the Internet and memorialized by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, so too was the president invisible in the aftermath of Katrina (as he had been after the Asian Tsunami). Bush remained on a five-week vacation during the first days of the disaster punctuated by a visit to a private event in Arizona where he bragged about how well things were going in Iraq, comparing the war there that he initiated to World War II, inferring that he was FDR. The next day Bush was shown clowning at a fundraiser in San Diego, smiling and strumming a guitar, and again bragging about Iraq and touting his failed domestic policies.
During Bush’s first visit to the disaster area, he made inappropriate jokes about how he knew New Orleans during his party days all too well and joked that he hoped to visit Republican Senator Trent Lott’s new house upon hearing that his beachfront estate was destroyed. In a fateful comment, Bush told his hapless FEMA director Michael Brown on camera: “You are doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” Bush’s first visit to the area kept him away from New Orleans and isolated from angry people who would confront him. His visit to the heavily damaged city of Biloxi, Mississippi was preceded by a team that cleared rubble and corpses from the route that the president would take, leaving the rest of the city in ruin. The same day, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Bush remarked, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees” at a time when the media had circulated copious reports of previous warnings by scientists, journalists, and government officials concerning dangers of the levees breaching and catastrophic flooding in the city of New Orleans, much of which was dangerously below sea level.
Bush’s response to the catastrophe revealed all the weaknesses of the Bush presidency: immature frat-boy, good-old boy behavior and banter; political cronyism; a bubble of isolation by sycophantic advisors; an arrogant out-of-touchness with the realities of the sufferings his policies had unleashed; a general incompetence; and belief that image-making can compensate for the lack of public policy.
But the media spectacle of the hurricane, which dominated the US cable news channels and was heavily covered on the US network news, showed images of unbelievable suffering and destruction, depicting thousands of people without food and water, and images of unimaginable loss and death in a city that had descended into anarchy and looked like a Third World disaster area with no relief in sight. Images of the poor, sick, and largely black population left behind provide rare media images of what Michael Harrington described as “the other America,” and the media engaged in rare serious discussions of race and class as they tried to describe and make sense of the disaster. As John Powers put it:
“Suddenly, the Others were right in front of our noses, and the major media — predominantly white and pretty well-off — were talking about race and class. Newspapers ran front-page articles noting that nearly six million people have fallen into poverty since President Bush took office — a nifty 20 percent increase to accompany the greatest tax cuts in world history. Feisty columnists rightly fulminated that, even as tens of thousands suffered in hellish conditions, the buses first rescued people inside the Hyatt Hotel. Of course, such bigotry was already inscribed in the very layout of New Orleans. One reason the Superdome became a de facto island is that, like the city’s prosperous business district, it was carefully constructed so it would be easy to protect from the disenfranchised (30 percent of New Orleans lives below the poverty line).”
Usually the media exaggerate the danger of hurricanes, put their talking heads on the scene, and then exploit human suffering by showing images of destruction and death. While there was an exploitative dimension to the Katrina coverage, it was clear that this was a major story and disaster and media figures and crews did risk their lives to cover the story. Moreover, many reporters and talking heads were genuinely indignant when federal relief failed to come day after day, and for the first time in recent memory seriously criticized the Bush administration and Bush himself, while sharply questioning officials of the administration when they tried to minimize the damage or deflect blame. As Mick Farren put it:
“In the disaster that was New Orleans, TV news and Harry Connick were the first responders. It may well have been a news generation’s finest hour. Reporters who had been spun or embedded for most of their careers faced towering disaster and intimacy with death, and told the tale with a horrified honesty. When anchors like Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper waded in the water, dirty and soaked in sweat, it transcended showboating. It was the story getting out. Okay, so Geraldo Rivera made an asshole of himself, but I will never forget the eloquent shell shock of NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado after he discovered the horror at the Convention Center.
“That CNN could function where FEMA feared to tread undercut most federal excuses and potential perjuries. Journalists who could see the bodies refused to accept ‘factuality’ from Michael Brown, Michael Chertoff, or even George Bush. Ted Koppel and Paula Zahn all but screamed ‘bullshit!’ at them on camera.”
The rightwing Republican attack machine first blamed the New Orleans poor for not leaving and then descending into barbarism, but it came out quickly that there were tens of thousands who were so poor they had no transportation, money, or anyplace to go, and many had to care for sick and infirm friends, relatives, or beloved pets. Moreover, the poor were abandoned for days without any food, water, or public assistance. The rightwing attack machine then targeted local officials for the crisis, but intense media focus soon attached major blame for the criminally inadequate public response on Bush administration FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was revealed that Brown, who had no real experience with disaster management, had received his job because he was college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, the first FEMA director and one of the major Texas architects of Bush’s election successes, known as the “enforcer” because of his fierce loyalty to Bush and tough Texas behavior and demeanor.
FEMA Director Michael Brown
Meanwhile, Internet sources and Time magazine revealed that Brown had fudged his vita, claiming in testimony to Congress that he had been a manager of local emergency services when he had only had a low-level position. He had claimed he was a professor at a college where he was a student and generally had padded his c.v. Stories also circulated that in his previous job he had helped run Arabian horse shows, but had been dismissed for incompetence. After these reports, it was a matter of time until Bush first sent him back to Washington, relieving him of his duties, and allowing him to resign a couple of days later.
The media then had a field day scapegoating the hapless Brown who admittedly was a poster boy for Bush administration incompetent political appointees. But the top echelons of FEMA were full of Bush appointees who had fumbled and stumbled during the first crucial days of disaster relief and who were unqualified to deal with the tremendous challenges confronting the country. Moreover, Brown was blamed for a statement that he did not know there were tens of thousands of refugees stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center without food, water, or protection after pictures of their plight had circulated through the media. In fact, Michael Chertoff, head of the cabinet level Department of Homeland Security, also made such statements and the federal non-response could easily be blamed on his ineptness and failure to coordinate disaster response efforts.
Media images of the refugees left on their own in New Orleans and the surrounding area were largely poor and black, leading to charges that the Bush administration were blind to the suffering of the poor and people of color. While there was a fierce debate as to whether the federal response would or would not have been more vigorous if the victims were largely white or middle class people, readers of Yahoo news recognized that racism was blatantly obvious in captions to two pictures circulating, one of whites wading through water and described as “carrying food,” while another picture showing blacks with armloads of food described as “looters.” During NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief Rapper Kanye West declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and asserted that America is set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” West sharply criticized Bush’s domestic priorities and Iraq policy before NBC was able to cut away to a smiling Chris Tucker.
Bush’s presidential ratings continued to plunge as day after day there were pictures of incredible suffering, devastation, and death, and discussions of the utterly inadequate federal, local, and state response. While the U.S. corporate media had failed to critically discuss the failings of George W. Bush in either the 2000 or 2004 elections and had white-washed his failed presidency, for the first time one saw sustained criticism of the Bush administration on the U.S. cable TV news networks. The network correspondents on the ground were appalled by the magnitude of the devastation and paucity of the federal response and presented images of the horrific spectacle day after day, including voices from the area critical of the Bush administration. Even media correspondents who had been completely supportive of Bush’s policies began to express doubts and intense public interest in the tragedy ensured maximum coverage and continued critical discussion.
The Bush administration went on an offensive, sending Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and other high officials to the disaster area, but the stark spectacle of suffering undercut whatever rhetoric the Bush team produced. It was widely reported that Condoleezza Rice was on a shopping spree in New York buying $5000 plus pairs of shoes when the spectacle unfolded on TV and her first press conference during the disaster showed her giddy and bubbly, impervious to the suffering; to improve her image, she was sent to her home-state Alabama where photographers dutifully snapped her helping organize relief packages for flood victims.
While the Bush administration tried to emphasize positive features of the relief effort, the images of continued devastation and the slow initial response undercut efforts to convey an image that the Bushites were in charge and dealing with the problem. It remains to be seen how the politics of hurricane spectacles will be played out and whether Bush will weather the storms of criticism unleashed, what the role of the media will be, and how the public will respond to the disasters and Bush’s response. The spectacles of Iraq, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina and the specter of crony capitalism in its aftermath, and on-going Republican party scandals involving leaders of the House and Senate and key figures in Bush’s and Cheney’s staff may raise the specter of impeachment–or once again, the Bush administration may survive the ever-erupting media spectacles of scandal that have characterized the regime.
W. David Jenkins III, “Georgie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job,” September 17, 2005, at www.smirkingchimp.com.
John Powers, “Week of the Living Death,” LA Weekly, September 9-15, 2005, at www.laweekly.com.
Mick Farren, “Post-Storm Watch,” Citybeat, September 22-28, 2005, at www.lacitybeat.com.
Mark Benjamin, “The crony who prospered. Joe Allbaugh was George W. Bush’s good ol’ boy in Texas. He hired his good friend Mike Brown to run FEMA. Now Brownie’s gone and Allbaugh is living large.” Salon, September 16, 2005, at www.salon.com.
Allbaugh was known as Bush’s enforcer during his stint as Texas governor, allegedly being in charge of sanitizing the records of Bush’s National Guard service that suggested he had gone AWOL and not completely his military service; see Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Col.: Paradigm, 2005.
Mark Benjamin, “Brownout!” Salon, September 11, 2005, at www.salon.com.
See Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young, and Shannon McCaffrey, “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows,” Knight-Ridder News Service, September 13, 2005. The report indicates that Chertoff, not FEMA Director Michael Brown, was in charge of disaster response and delayed federal action. Chertoff was a lawyer and Republican partisan who participated in the Whitewater crusade against Bill Clinton and had no experience in either national security or disaster response when Bush made him head of the Department of Homeland Security.
On the issue of race and the history of New Orleans, see Mike Davis, “The Struggle Over the Future of New Orleans,” Socialist Worker, September 21, 2005, collected online at www.zmag.org.
NBC circulated a disclaimer after the show saying that West did not speak for the network and departed from his prepared speech, and also cut the clip from a West coast broadcast three hours later, but the video circulated over the Internet and was immediately incorporated into rap songs and anti-Bush websites; see the video clip at politicalhumor.about.com/ (accessed September 23, 2005) and see Chris Lee, “Playback Time. Two Rappers Use Kanye West’s Anti-Bush Quote to Launch a Mashed-up Web Smash,” Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2005: E1.
On the specter of impeachment, see Bernard Weiner, ”’Suppose…’: Arguments for an Impeachment Resolution,” September 28, 2005 at www.smirkingchimp.com and Robert Parry, “Can Bush Be Ousted?”, October 1, 2005, at consortiumnews.com.
1. Terra Daily
2. FEMA Director Michael Brown
Please feel free to comment.
Kellner’s summation of journalistic action vs. governmental inaction rightly points to the increasingly significant role of the cablers in disseminating images from global disasters. Journalists and video-equipped citizenry have become first responders on the front lines of natural and man-made catastrophies, broadcasting indisputable visible evidence of “realities” on the ground while government officials proffer ostrich-optimism. What is consistently troubling about governmental rhetoric is the tonal propensity of the president and his cronies to not only “spin” but to do so with an indignant attitude. They seem to be outraged that the public and the media expect competency from governmental officials. How dare you expect us to execute a plan when it’s been policy to spout vagaries to satiate a disinterested public for so many years? How dare you call us on our incompetence? How can you expect the government to communicate as effectively as CNN, MSNBC, or FOX NEWS? WOW! I can’t help but refer back to the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussain and his cabinet (supposedly) watched CNN to receive updates on US troop activity and attacks. Perhaps the administration would be better served if they simply turned on their sets and viewed the live feeds and perspective offered by the likes of Anderson Cooper, Brian Williams, and their ilk. I fear the solution and the problem are not so simple to fix; I fear the problem is that the administration actually BELIEVES the rhetoric they spew forth: things are going well in Iraq; the Middle East is stabilizing; tax cuts help the poor; FEMA did all that it could; race and class were not an issue in the aftermath of Katrina; and on and on and on and on and on…..
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Some right and some wrong
I’m still in shock at what has happened to my city and my neighborhood, but as I watched the entire spectacle from the Amazon (where I was luckily doing research), I couldn’t help feeling that the images were both overexaggerated and right on. The emphasis on looting was in itself racist and largely untrue. Yet, Aaron Brown became my hero as night after night he blasted Bush’s reaction. Thanks Doug for a more generalized response as I only have CNN and Globo here.
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Back where we began…
Watching the events unfold on television, one could not help but place some blame on the the response of the Bush regime and, on a greater scale, the structural set up of America. Pictures speak a thousand words and seeing some of America’s poorest citizens huddled together revealed the growing divide in this country.
Though the news media did openly criticize the government’s response to the Katrina disaster, true critical journalism (of the Katrina response and many other things) has quickly disappeared again in the past few months. New Orleans has become a memory and the media has moved back to meekly discussing the Iraq war using Bushisms provided for them by the man himself or talking about the affects of the Christmas season on mall attendance. In truth, the news is fluff and the media likes it that way. With so much time to fill on all day news programs like CNN or MSNBC, there is little room left for actually approaching current topics critically. There is little need to so either, apparently, because no one seems to care. As long as the visuals are appetizing and the sound bites zing, mass audiences are satisfied. If this continues, if time and effort are not spent to investigate issues in depth long after they’ve seemed to loose their potency, network news will never be able to be the critical “fourth check” it was envisioned as in television new’s early years.