TCS Daily


The Press Gets Backbone. Does It?

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - September 14, 2005 12:00 AM

One of the silver linings sought in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the hope that somehow the hurricane -- and the response to it -- have taught the press to "regain its spine" in questioning public officials over failures in emergency management. This restoration of the spine of the Fourth Estate is generally discussed in the context of some journalist or another waxing outraged and furious over the reaction of politicians to Katrina -- and doing it to the face of the politicians in question.

Of course, it is easy enough to rage against people and to do it in line with the expectations of conventional wisdom. It is a far different -- and far more complicated thing -- to stand up and criticize some aspects of conventional wisdom because that criticism, however unpopular it may be, is warranted by the facts. If the press really wants to show that it now has some backbone in the aftermath of Katrina, it might do well to speak out against conventional wisdom.

So how can the press point out some of the flaws of the conventional wisdom surrounding Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and show that it has some backbone? Let us count the ways:

  • A press with backbone might want to point out -- as Michael Kinsley (no one's idea of a right-winger) has -- that much of the reaction to Katrina's aftermath would be justified only if human beings possessed perfect foresight. A press with backbone might want to take Kinsley's observation that even if President Bush had started a project dedicated towards strengthening the levees around New Orleans, the project would have done nothing to mitigate the flood damage because there would likely not have been time enough to finish it.

  • A press with backbone might want to echo the comments of John Tierney, who points out that some of those who now so self-righteously pontificate against the self-evidently stupid idea of rolling FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security were the very ones who proposed the idea in the first place. And if they didn't propose the idea, they certainly had little trouble voting for it. A press with backbone might want to correct some of the misimpressions about a lack of funding for levees and flood control by pointing out -- as Tierney has -- that the Bush Administration actually increased funding over and above the levels it had been during the Clinton Administration. A press with backbone might also want to follow up on articles like this one, which point out that Louisiana suffered less from a lack of funding and more from the propensity to use funding for pork-barrel projects that had nothing whatsoever to do with enhancing public safety.

  • A press with backbone might want to highlight -- as Will Wilkinson has -- that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has done nothing to lessen the case for small government and that many of those who argue that it has are either being willfully obtuse or inadvertently so. Either way, as Wilkinson shows, certain members of the Fourth Estate have done little to distinguish themselves in the eyes of those who crave a little more discernment and intellectual rigor in journalistic commentary.

  • A press with backbone might pay attention to this column by Louisiana congressman Bobby Jindal, who discusses in detail the failure of government in responding to the disaster and who remarks that private companies "responded more quickly and flexibly" than did federal and state government.

  • A press with backbone might take note of the observations of people like Radley Balko who surely disconcerts with evidence that the evil and malicious Wal-Mart has contributed massively to the hurricane relief effort -- and then perhaps explore the possibility that the private sector might have a valuable role to play in such disasters, a role that it can carry off with greater effect and efficiency than can government.

  • A press with backbone might pay a little attention to someone like Stephen Bainbridge, who further chronicles the failures of government in responding to Katrina and who quite sensibly points out that perhaps we ought to think about outsourcing at least some disaster relief responsibilities to the private sector. The incentives for the private sector to excel in responding to disasters are plain to see. A press with backbone might nonetheless take the time and patience to educate the populace about such incentives and ask aloud -- and often -- whether the time has not come for us to think of novel solutions to disaster relief.

  • A press with backbone would be quite right to express outrage and disbelief at the bumbling of FEMA director Michael Brown -- as well as at Brown's reprehensible misrepresentation of his employment experience. But a press with backbone might want to go further and ask about the confirmation process that allowed Mike Brown to get the chance to work at FEMA in the first place. In the confirmation dance, the Senate surely dropped the ball on its end. We can find fault with both the Administration and the Senate for having allowed Brown to be confirmed and focusing on both does not mean that we are saving any side from the criticism that it may deserve.

I look forward to a press with backbone tackling all of these difficult issues with relentless audacity. I look forward to a press with backbone challenging the society it serves to think about new solutions to the problems and challenges of disaster relief.

The author is a lawyer and TCS contributor.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

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