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White House feeling the wrath of Katrina

Katrina has brought the toughest media coverage of the White House since the days before 9/1 1. In the face of disaster and a slow administration response, reporters and news organizations have seemingly rediscovered their role as critical adversaries of the government.

Image control and news manipulation hasn't worked in New Orleans.

"When people see suffering among Americans, there is no spin that can explain away the inability of the government to deliver water, food and transportation," said former Washington Post writer Juan Williams, who now works for Fox News and National Public Radio.

"The idea that a vulnerable population was left to hurt, to suffer and to even die has become the dominant narrative of this story," added Williams, who was in Buffalo this week.

This is a remarkable switch from the post 9/1 1 media mind-set established in the time leading up to the war in Iraq. It was almost considered unpatriotic in those days for the press to criticize the government, as television news anchors sported flags on their lapels.

Times have changed and so has the reporting.

"You see people like Shepard Smith at Fox and Anderson Cooper on CNN and they have almost dropped their journalistic roles and made cries for help for people," Williams said. "This goes a little bit beyond the bounds of journalism, but in terms of cable news, they are allowed to do this in their attempts to appeal to emotion.

"That emotion has flowed away from the administration and against the government. It's obvious that the media are picking up on that flow. When people see a demonstration of a lack of leadership in the midst of crisis, when they see that government services aren't being delivered, then they start to question everything."

Media are not setting the agenda, but following public opinion. So, in the case of Katrina, criticism is not only allowed but welcome.

Now, once disdained reporters are taking on a new persona, Williams believes. "I'm all for this: reporters as heroes, rather than reporters as the self-conscious, vain, multimillionaire ego maniacs. That's a big difference."

It's also a huge difference for President Bush. Media coverage has been a factor in his poll numbers falling to the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

"Some people have said that Katrina is a bookmark to 9/1 1," Williams said. " 9/1 1 came at the start of the Bush administration and really boosted it and gave it a theme: combating the war on terror.

"This event has now undercut the Bush administration's claims to leadership and being able to more effectively protect the homeland than anybody else."

The White House is working to change the perception of what's happening in New Orleans. Bush, who Tuesday took responsibility for the failures of the Katrina effort, has repeatedly visited the city. This week, Michael Brown, the embattled head of FEMA, was removed from New Orleans and then resigned.

"The next step may be a major speech by the president (scheduled for Thursday night). You also have a major church service being planned, featuring the president with ministers."

This is all about controlling images and changing perception.

"The administration will now try to adapt a pose of standing with victims, as opposed to being the victimizer, the ones who caused this pain and suffering," Williams said. "The White House can't argue against facts, but what they can do, given all the reporting, is try to make it clear this wasn't the president's fault, that the person who was the problem (Brown) is gone."

In the coming months and years, Katrina will move to the back pages. The American public and media tend to have short memories. When the storm coverage declines, Williams thinks another topic may also vanish.

"The thing that might not be remembered is the discussion of poverty and the poor, especially the black poor," Williams said. "Poor people are not attractive to politicians or the media. They don't vote, and they don't have money.

"Since Katrina, we've seen television programs, magazine covers and newspaper stories about poverty, race and suffering. The question in my mind is how long will that last?"

The answer is -- as long as the media covers it.


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