Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a
longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is the founder of the
Real News Project, a new organization dedicated to producing
groundbreaking investigative journalism. He can be reached
The magnitude of the Hurricane Katrina
disaster and the media’s astonished—and astonishingly
vigorous— response puts in perspective how hard it has
generally become, in this country, to deliver the unadorned,
unapologetic truth. Indeed, for at least as long as George
Bush has been in office, the great unspoken challenge for
mainstream journalists has been to do one’s job while keeping
As the Bush organization has flipped one lever after
another of a vast and well-fueled propaganda machine, it
is has become ever more difficult for reporters to render
useful, accurate information to the public without neutering
it in the cop-out “on the one hand, on the other” format.
Constant pressure from the White House is one challenge.
Another is from corporate bosses who must produce untenable
profit growth while maintaining friendly relations with the
One of the most tricky work environments surely must be the
Fox News Network, Rupert Murdoch’s vehicle for dispensing
highly opinionated, fact-light ‘news’ in the guise of helping
provide Americans with “Fair and Balanced” journalism. And so
it was with a sense of wonder that I viewed a clip of an
exchange between two of Fox’s stars, Shepard Smith and Geraldo
Rivera, and hard-core propagandist talk show host Sean
Hannity, who had morphed into the role of anchorman for a “Fox
If you have broadband Internet access, you owe it to
yourself to watch this exchange , which aired Friday
night. Smith, Fox’s principal news anchor, and Rivera,
its high-priced celebrity gunslinger, reported in from the
scene of devastation in New Orleans. Smith and Rivera, both
usually loyal to Fox’s rigidly pro-administration line, yell,
cry (Geraldo) and generally register disgust as Hannity seeks
to gild the Bush administration’s glacial response to the
crisis. Here are a few choice excerpts:
SMITH: They won't let them walk out of the…convention
center. .. they've locked them in there. The
government said, "You go here, and you'll get help," or,
"You go in that Superdome and you'll get help."
And they didn't get help. They got locked in there.
And they watched people being killed around them. And they
watched people starving. And they watched elderly people not
get any medicine…..
And they've set up a checkpoint. And anyone who walks up
out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed
to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana.
Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's electricity.
Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from
there to there. The government will not allow you to do it.
It's a fact.
HANNITY: All right, Shep, I want to get some perspective
here, because earlier today...
SMITH: That is perspective! That is all the perspective
Soon, Hannity switches to Geraldo, where he finds no
RIVERA (holding aloft a baby): Sean…I want everyone in
the world to see, six days after Katrina swept through this
city, five days after the levee collapsed, this baby—this
baby—how old is this baby?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ten months old…..
RIVERA: Look in the face of the baby. This is it. This is
it. No sugar coating, no political spin, no Republicans or
Democrats. People suffering.
Let them go. Let them out of here. Let them go. Let them
walk over this damn interstate, and let them out of
HANNITY: All right. Thanks, Geraldo. Appreciate it. We
appreciate—and from New Orleans tonight.
For once, Hannity was nearly speechless. His mandate—and
preferences—were clear: Keep Fox’s viewers, Bush’s vaunted
base, steady, until the administration spin machine could be
shoved on top of the volatile events that threatened to expose
the horrible truth about the priorities and competencies
of this White House after an unprecedented, years-long
When Fox reporters are the most emphatically critical of
the Bush administration, you know something is going on. Had
Roger Ailes decided that it was simply impossible to ride out
this storm with Bush? What of the defections of The New
York Times’ conservative columnist David Brooks and
others in recent days? Perhaps they figure that this is
simply too enormous a screw-up to defend, and hope that by
joining the ranks of the indignant they may escape a sinking
ship. Or, maybe, maybe, even they have finally had enough.
Another remarkable breakthrough came Sunday, on Meet
the Press , Tim Russert freshened his typical beltway
bonhomie mix with a “real” person, Jefferson Parish President
(i.e., county manager) Aaron Broussard. His guest, who, by the
way, is white, delivered a startlingly blunt indictment of the federal
response to the death and destruction facing the largely poor,
black population that had been unable to get out.
BROUSSARD: ..[T]he aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of
Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. …Why did it
happen? Who needs to be fired? And believe me,
they need to be fired right away, because we still have
weeks to go in this tragedy. We have months to
go. We have years to go. And whoever is at the
top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be
chain-sawed off and we've got to start with some new
RUSSERT: Shouldn't the mayor of New Orleans
and the governor of New Orleans bear some
BROUSSARD: Sir, they were told like me, every
single day, "The cavalry's coming," on a federal level, "The
cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming, the cavalry's
coming." I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the
cavalry. The cavalry's still not here yet, but I've
begun to hear the hoofs, and we're almost a week out.
…We had Wal-Mart deliver three trucks of water, trailer
trucks of water. FEMA turned them back. They
said we didn't need them. This was a week ago. …we had
1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a Coast Guard vessel docked
in my parish. The Coast Guard said, "Come get the fuel
right away." When we got there with our trucks, they
got a word. "FEMA says don't give you the fuel."
Yesterday—yesterday—FEMA comes in and cuts all of our
emergency communication lines. They cut them without
...The guy who runs…emergency management…His mother was
trapped in St. Bernard nursing home and every day she called
him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody
coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming
to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday.
Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's
coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to
get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday
night. [Broussard was sobbing at this point]
… Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get
us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's
promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of
the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send
RUSSERT: Just take a pause, Mr. [Broussard].
While you gather yourself in your very emotional times, I
understand, let me go to Governor Haley Barbour of
And there we were, back in the bad old days. Russert had no
tasteful way to note that Barbour had been GOP chairman in the
mid-90s, a key strategist and fundraiser for the
transformation of American government into a one-party state
for the interests of the rich, and the dismantlement of the
safety net, that, among other things, is supposed to protect
all Americans from the most extreme ravages of natural
disaster and daily life alike. Or to ask hard questions about
Barbour’s avid support for Bush’s Iraqi war, and its unusual
overseas deployment of National Guard units that properly
should have been in place in the Gulf region to provide relief
and order in case of emergency. It’s hard to point this
out when you work for NBC, a unit of General Electric, a huge
defense contractor that has been one of the biggest
beneficiaries of Bush administration priorities and
Fixing journalism’s deep structural deficiencies will take
more than the Labor Day Revolt. Getting it right means
more than expressing momentary indignation, however heartfelt,
or reporting on the current crisis as if the important thing
was how the disaster is affecting the administration’s
“approval” rating. Because it’s not the administration’s
spin with which we need to concern ourselves. It is the
media’s long, long sleep in the face of mounting evidence that
Bush and his team are not only ideologues seriously out of
touch with the American public but grievously incompetent
managers of the nation’s commitments, resources and
As we take stock of the true costs of the failures
surrounding Katrina, journalists should note their own role as
collaborators. We, too, have been complicit in