Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Katrina Tapes

What's really all that new in the AP Katrina video story?

In a word: Video.

The failure of the Katrina relief effort isn't news. Americans learned back in August and September that the government response to the Katrina disaster was inadequate. And though bias-warrior conservatives tend to blame the media for all negative perceptions of their champions, Katrina swept those arguments away like so many shacks in the 9th Ward.


In a word: Video.

It wasn't subtle liberal framing by CNN or CBS News or the NYT that sank Bush in September: It was video of the President saying "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie." Plus video of the President trying to look Presidential by hugging two black storm "victims" at a fictional "aid station" on the Mississippi coast. Plus video of a passerby shouting "Go fuck yourself!" to Dick Cheney during a live news photo-op.

For all the media sturm und drang, the post-Katrina days were a period when the images the White House engineered to deliver its message just looked... phony. People might not have been able to put their finger on what was wrong, exactly, but it didn't take a rocket surgeon figure out that the reality of the unfolding tragedy just didn't jibe with the official response.

But that was then. What's the big deal now about the video of these of these pre-landfall FEMA briefings?

It's not that we didn't have solid evidence that the federal response had been bungled. And we've had plenty of evidence that the White House had gone into bunker mode, refusing for months to cooperate with Capitol Hill investigators. We knew last week that the White House report on the Katrina response managed to point no fingers at the Oval Office. It's all there if you want to read it. But few do.

The facts in those stories have a fatal flaw: they're just words. Written words. And in the war of the written word, there is no end to the parsing and the framing and the sense that the real truth lies somewhere else, beyond some media curtain, obscured by partisan interests and secretive agendas.

Informed media consumers are aware that video is at least as easy to manipulate as words, and that pictures can, in fact, lie. But the power of the image is undeniable. Why else would the question of whether Bush did a photo op with Jack Abramoff take on such high-stakes importance? Even if such a photo recorded nothing more than a meaningless "Thanks for your support" moment, in political terms such an image represents a tremendous weapon for the President's opponents.

So this is the meaningful part of the Katrina briefing-video story: non-partisan people who see it just won't walk away with the impression that the President of the United States was all that involved or concerned. There's a hollowness to his promises of federal support. There's a visual difference in the urgency expressed by the emergency officials seated cheek-to-jowl around a conference table and the president, seated beside an advisor and a cameraman, alone in a room at the ranch where he was spending his vacation.

No amount of journalistic balancing can undo the impression that such a video presents.

Such impressions can be misleading, and so far, hammering on this point and blaming the media -- again -- seems to be the best the Right can do.

"WE'RE BACK TO HEARING ABOUT KATRINA, which is a pretty good sign the media is trying to gin up an other anti-Bush swarm," Glenn Reynolds wrote at Instapundit. "Katrina taught the media that if they all swarmed Bush at once they could do harm even if -- as turned out to be the case -- much of what they reported was outright false. I've noticed a lot more of that since. The Bush Administration is quite capable of making its own trouble with PR -- see the ports issue, for example -- but it's also quite clear that the media is doing this sort of thing for entirely partisan reasons."

Entirely partisan reasons? I think that entirely misses the point. The show we're watching could be titled "The Bureaucracy Strikes Back." The White House strategy has been to scapegoat its underlings. It just didn't figure that the underlings would be smart enough to tape the proceedings -- and keep copies.

John Hindraker at Powerline plays lawyer tricks. We haven't seen the videos in their entirety. The clips were edited "in a way obviously intended to make President Bush and the administration look bad." Do the clips show the President misled the country? Hindraker's answer sounds an awful lot like "It depends on what your definition of the word 'is' is."

Hindraker parses with excruciating care the sourcing of AP phrases like "and Bush was worried too" while focusing enormous attention on the difference between "breaching" and "overtopping." Apparently, to Bush loyalists, the difference between one and the other proves that the media is bad and that Bush is blameless, although I honestly can say that after reading his arguments carefully I reached this conclusion: If one of my kids rationalized a failure of that magnitude with such threadbare word-play, I'd laugh while I whupped his sorry butt.

Anyway, none of this amounts to anything more than a temporary rhetorical fallback position for the partisan Right. When it's just words in play, more words can usually blunt their effect. But words can't undo the effect of images, as the Rodney King riots illustrated vividly in 1992.

There's still a lot of Bush administration tenure ahead of us, and for close observers, this may be little more than a footnote.

But to casual TV consumers, this looks an awful lot like that last, heavy straw.