Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Michael Brown: The Real Culprits Get Away With It

Not surprisingly, the news media opened up on Michael Brown after his testimony yesterday about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Brown, they said, blamed everyone but himself for FEMA's botched response.

Not surprisingly, the media did not blame everyone. In fact, those most responsible went unnamed during the testimony and in most of the coverage of it. So, who really was to blame?

The Senate itself. USA Today gets that part of it right. The fact is, Michael Brown should not be blamed for FEMA's response. Pres. Bush should be blamed for putting FEMA in unqualified hands and the Senate should be blamed for its incompetent level of advising and consenting back in 2002, less than a year after the September 11th attacks, when it waved Brown through the confirmation hearing with nothing more rigorous than a pat on the back.

But it's not just the Senate's fault. The Senate's role, after all, is supposed to be adversarial to the president. The Senate is supposed to challenge and test his appointments.

But there's someone else out there who's supposed to do the same thing to both the president and the Congress.

And that's the goddamned media itself!

I did a Nexis search for "Michael Brown" for all of June 2002, when his confirmation hearing was held, and turned up not a single reference. No print mention. Not even a C-Span transcript. Just the daybook listing of his hearing. A listing clearly ignored by every single one of the hundreds of media outlets who receive it.

Less than a year after terrorists flew passenger jets into the three buildings that lay at the core of our economic and military strength, leaving almost 3,000 people dead in the two cities that virtually every major network executive calls home, not a single television outlet or newspaper saw fit to cover the elevation of the next person to lead the federal emergency management agency!

What was CNN, America's most trusted name in news, talking about that day? Here's the lineup, from CNN's transcripts page, for American Morning that day:

  • Latest on Elizabeth Smart's Abduction Contradicting Earlier Reports
  • Police Say Smart's Younger Sister Not Threatened by Abductor
  • Starbucks Pulls Controversial In-Store Poster
  • U.S. Officials Confirm Abu Zubair Al-Haili in Custody in Morocco
  • Interview with Lauren Young
  • Ripley's Releasing New Encyclopedia
  • Interview with Donny Deutsch
  • Interview with Andy Serwer
  • Doctor Comes Up With Way to Try to Prevent Hospital Mistakes
  • Another Twist in Abduction of Elizabeth Smart
  • Israel Beginning Counter-Offensive in Response to Suicide Bombing
  • Ventura Will Not Make Second Run for Governor of Minnesota
  • Man Officials Call Key Senior Al Qaeda Operative Taken Into Custody
  • Tale of Woman Who Spoke Limited English and Was Repeatedly Turned Away by Police
  • Russian Teen Sisters Receive Masters Degrees From Stanford

Along with developments in the Middle East (namely, another bomb), the latest details about the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping led the news. Larry King's guests that night included her parents. His other guests? Dominick Dunne. And Dear Abby.

The news media were once considered watchdogs. Today, they no longer act like dogs at all -- they certainly don't bite, let alone bark or growl -- except in obediently knowing how to heel and lie down. And they barely even watch.

The news media are supposed to be adversarial to government, to anyone in power. And if Americans have become so complacent that they don't like journalism any more, well, tough shit, because real journalists won't let that stop them. And good journalists would start doing adversarial journalism in ways that bring Americans on board and makes them part of the adversarial process and reminds them why its adversarial nature is not an unfortunate by-product of our system, but an essential, intended part of it.

So, I don't want to see another journalist get indignant over government complacency, or cry over another dead American, until they're willing to spend the rest of their broadcast doing the unsexy and boring (unless well-produced) stories of process and policy. Until they're willing to pay attention to the Julie Myers' of the world, they've lost any moral authority to voice outrage at the Michael Browns.

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