October 2, 2005
Dan Rather was on ''Larry King Live'' the other night and was asked about the Katrina coverage. Now, say what you like about Dan, but he knows his meteorological phenomena. I've always thought there was something quintessentially American about Dan's hurricane editions of the CBS news -- not the part of the show where he's reporting on the actual hurricane, but the bit where he says "And today's other headlines,'' as if it's the most normal thing in the world to be reading "The Dow closed 19 points down today" while wrapped around a lamppost in your sou'wester with a rusting doublewide flying over your shoulder.
Yet Hurricane Dan professed himself delighted with his successors. "They took us there to the hurricane," he told Larry. "They put the facts in front of us and, very important, they sucked up their guts and talked truth to power."
Er, no. The facts they put in front of us were wrong, and they didn't talk truth to power. They talked to goofs in power, like New Orleans' Mayor Nagin and Police Chief Compass, and uncritically fell for every nutso yarn they were peddled. The media swallowed more bilge than if they'd been lying down with their mouths open as the levee collapsed. Ten thousand dead! Widespread rape and murder! A 7-year-old gang-raped and then throat-slashed! It was great stuff -- and none of it happened. No gang-raped 7-year-olds. None.
Most of the media are still in Dan mode, sucking up their guts and congratulating themselves about what a swell job they did during Katrina. CNN producers were advising their guests to "be angry," and there was so much to get angry about, not least the fact that no matter how angry you got on air Anderson Cooper was always much better at it. And Mayor Nagin as well. To show he was angry, he said "frickin'" all the frickin' time so that by the end of a typical Nagin soundbite you felt as if you'd been gang-fricked. "That frickin' Superdome," he raged. "Five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
But nobody got killed by a hooligan in the Superdome. The problem wasn't rape and murder, but the rather more prosaic lack of bathroom facilities. As Ben Stein put it, it was the media that rioted. They grabbed every lurid rumor and took it for a wild joyride across prime time. There was a real story in there -- big hurricane, people dead -- but it wasn't enough, and certainly not for damaging President Bush.
Think about that: Hurricane week was in large part a week of drivel, mostly the bizarre fantasies of New Orleans' incompetent police chief but amplified hugely by a gullible media. Given everything we now know they got wrong in Louisiana, where they speak the language, how likely is it that the great blundering herd are getting it any more accurate in Iraq?
Four years ago, you'll recall, we were bogged down in "the brutal Afghan winter." By "we," I don't mean the military but the media. The line on Afghanistan was that it was the white man's grave. Actually, it was the grave that was white; the man was more of a blueish color thanks to temperatures "so cold that eyelids crust and saliva turns to sludge in the mouth," according to Knight-Ridder's Tom Ifield. "Realistically," reported New York's Daily News, "U.S. forces have a window of two or three weeks before the brutal Afghan winter begins to foreclose options."
Er, no. "Realistically," U.S. forces turned out to have a window of four years, which is how long they've been waiting for the "fast, fast approaching" (ABC's ''Nightline'') brutal Afghan winter to show up. It's Knight-Ridder's news reports that turn to sludge on your lips. The "brutal Afghan winter" is a media fiction.
How many times does this have to happen before the press seriously examines why so many of them get the big stories wrong in exactly the same way? After decades of boasting about "hiring diversity," everybody in America's newsrooms is now so remarkably diverse they all make exactly the same mistakes. Oughtn't that to be just a teensy bit disquieting even to the most blinkered journalism professor?
How appropriate that it should be Dan Rather, always late to yesterday's conventional wisdom, to bless the media's fraudulent coverage of Katrina. Dan was back, along with his dismissed producer Mary Mapes, to defend his fake-memo story from last year. Another interviewer, his former CBS colleague Marvin Kalb, sympathized at the way Rather's terrific story had somehow gotten lost in a lot of tedious quibbling about the fact that the 1970s typewritten memos amazingly used the default font of Microsoft Word: "The focus was not on the substance of your story," complained Marvin to Dan. "The National Guard aspect of the whole thing sort of dropped to the side, and this media focus was on you."
The critics had, as Mary Mapes puts it in her new book, "nothing beyond a cursory and politically motivated examination of the typeface." To this day, as Dan likes to moan, the White House is still refusing to address the substance of the story.
There's a reason for that. If I say "King Zog of Albania today launched a blistering critique of the CBS News Division," and you point out that King Zog of Albania died in 1961, that's it -- it's over.
Doesn't matter how blistering the critique is. And that goes for the hurricane, too. You can't indict Bush for failing to respond when you've spent the previous week demanding he respond to fake crises -- mass murder, mass child rape, five-figure body counts.
Oh, well. Even at CNN, hurricane fever can't last forever. According to the headline writers at the network's Web site on Thursday:
"Bush Narrows Supreme Court List: Judges, Lawyers Being Considered, Analysts Say."
Well, those "analysts" lent a devastating blow to those of us who thought the president would push the envelope, think outside the box and appoint a busboy or exotic dancer. But no. After two centuries of the same-old same-old, it's still "judges, lawyers being considered." But it's good to know the media are reverting to ponderous statements of the obvious after a wild and wacky couple of weeks' worth of statements of the obviously wrong.