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September 11, 2005 - On Mixing Inefficiency With Authoritarianism

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In the middle of last week, September 7, I mentioned the government starting press restrictions in New Orleans to Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, as he was one of the team that founded CNN and still has personal ties to the network. I don't think he believed me, but I was referring to this from Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo


At first the evidence was scattered and anecdotal. But now it's pretty clear that a key aim of the Bush administration's takeover of the NOLA situation is to cut off press access to report the story.

First, there were the FEMA orders barring members of the press from photographing anything to do with the recovery of the bodies of the dead. [Reuters news item here.]

Perhaps there could be guidelines about photographs which in any way clearly identified the deceased. No one wants to get first confirmation of the death of a loved one by seeing their body on the nightly news. But a blanket ban serves only to prevent the public from knowing what really happened last week. And the right of FEMA or any branch of the federal government for that matter to issue such a ban on American soil seems highly dubious to me. It's one thing with military casualties: the military operates under its own legal code and not under normal civilian rules. But this is happening on American soil. This isn't a war zone. Nor is it any longer a situation where police or National Guard troops are in the midst of retaking control from mobs or looters. This is a recovery from a natural disaster.

Now comes this post from Brian Williams, which suggests a general effort to bar reporters from access to many of the key points in the city.

Take a moment to note what's happening here: these are the marks of repressive government, which mixes inefficiency with authoritarianism. The crew that couldn't get key aid on the scene in time last week is coming in - in force now. And one of the key missions appears to be cutting off public information about what's happening in the city.

This is a domestic, natural disaster. Absent specific cases where members of the press would interfere or get in the way of some particular clean up operation, or perhaps demolition work, there is simply no reason why credentialed members of the press should not be able to cover everything that is happening in that city.


Our high-powered Wall Street attorney, from his office more than thirty floors above the hole in the ground that used to be the World Trade Center, says this:


It seems that now is the time for the press to forge ahead (in court if need be) and report news not pabulum.

Interesting thought - if this is being done under the presidential use of executive privilege, is this not an impeachable offense (abuse of power)? Just a thought, no legal scholarship behind it.


Far upstate, in Rochester, Dick says it doesn't matter:


Not to be a wet blanket - but Republicans are in control of everything from dog catcher to Pearly Gates. Is there ANYTHING for which W could possibly be impeached?


Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, returns to the main point –


No, it wasn't that I didn't believe it, I just didn't think FEMA had the authority to prohibit pictures of the dead (and I still say they wouldn't have), although there might be the possibility of them not cooperating with media outlets, something they would try only at their peril, especially with the latest polls showing public outrage at the way all this has been handled by government, including the feds, and showing a corresponding approval for news coverage of Katrina.

But we should keep in mind, at least technically, that there are two separate things going on here - first, FEMA saying there is no room on the rescue and recovery boats (no problem, since the media crews can run their own boats), and the "request" not to photograph the dead ("We have requested that no photographs of the deceased by made by the media," in the words of a FEMA spokesperson), which "my" unnamed media source tells me is being taken as just that, a "request," not an "order," and one that will most likely not be complied with.

So once again, I guess we will probably want to put our "hounds of hell" back in their kennels, where they need remain at the ready until an actual impeachment need arises, which I'm sure will be too late to do any of us any good. (Dammit.)


I then told Rick I'd worry about something else, and forwarded all concerned this item from the New York Post


A request by FEMA that news organizations not photograph dead bodies being recovered in New Orleans is not going to fly with the major newsweeklies.

"I understand the request, but to not take pictures of dead bodies is not something we can heed," said Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time.

There are several pictures of flood victims in the current issue of Time, but Kelly said victims' faces are deliberately not shown.

"We have a pretty good record of telling the story without being gratuitously graphic," he said.

Mark Whitaker, editor of Newsweek, who also happens to be the reigning president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, opted to show no pictures of the deceased in the Sept. 12 issue now on newsstands. But it does have one graphic closeup of a person identified as a "dying hurricane victim outside the Superdome."

The caption said the unidentified woman, who was being offered an orange, died shortly after the photo was taken.

Whitaker in a statement said, "We are going to do what we think is appropriate journalistically."

As the controversy swirled, the embattled federal agency said it did not intend to enforce its own request.
FEMA officials continue to insist they were concerned that friends and relatives searching for missing persons might be forced to find out from jarring media pictures that their loved ones were deceased.


But then things changed.  Anderson Cooper announced, in passing, at the end of his CNN show ("360") Friday evening, that CNN had been granted a restraining order that they be able report on all recovery efforts in New Orleans, cited first amendment stuff. If this is no problem, as Rick says, why did CNN go to court? Will the order be overturned based on national security issues - CNN's coverage damages national interest or whatever? Fox News did not join them in the suit. Is CNN grandstanding? He should know. He's got his sources at CNN.

Australian Broadcasting had this on Saturday, September 10 - stamped 10:22 am (AEST) –


The US military says it will ban journalists and photographers from documenting the recovery of bodies left littering New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The military ban follows a request by the Federal Emergency Management Team (FEMA) not to photograph the dead.

The Pentagon has an existing banned photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq.

Lieutenant General Russel Honore, the commander of the relief operation on the US Gulf Coast, said that while the military had allowed reporters covering the catastrophe free rein, it was now slamming the door shut out of respect for the possibly thousands of victims and their families.

"We've had total access to everything we've done - the good, the bad and the ugly - but that operation (the recovery of corpses) will be conducted with dignity and respect for the families," Lt Gen Honore said.

"There will be zero access to that operation. It would not be good to have pictures of people, the deceased shown on any media," he said, calling for published pictures of corpses to be removed from websites. ...


Then there was this from Digital Spy in the UK –


Attempts to censor the photography of corpses in New Orleans and other areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina have been challenged by CNN.

On Friday, officials at FEMA, the embattled emergency management agency of the American government, requested that the media not take photographs of dead bodies. The agency has also started to reject reporters' requests to travel with rescue boats, now that the waters are receding and the dead bodies become more and more prevalent.

By Friday afternoon, CNN News Group president Jim Walton issued the following email to staff at the network:

"In response to official statements earlier today that news media would be excluded from covering the victim recovery process in New Orleans and surrounding areas on the suggestion that what is reported may offend viewers' or victims' sensibilities, CNN has filed a lawsuit in federal court to prohibit any agency from restricting its ability to fully and fairly cover this story.

"As seen most recently from war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, from tsunami-ravaged South Asia and from Hurricane Katrina's landfall along the Gulf, CNN has shown that it is capable of balancing vigorous reporting with respect for private concerns. Government officials cannot be allowed to hinder the free flow of information to the public, and CNN will not let such a decision stand without challenge."

A few hours later, a US District Court Judge granted CNN a restraining order preventing emergency officials in the disaster area hindering the media's coverage of the body recovery process. TVNewser reports that this order is temporary; a follow-up hearing will take place on Saturday to establish whether or not the order will be made permanent.


That referred to this from Media Bistro's TVNewser


Aftermath: CNN Wins Round One; Judge Grants Temporary Restraining Order

"CNN has obtained a restraining order to prevent emergency officials in the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone from preventing the media from covering the recovery of bodies," a message on CNN's internal wires system says.

"... U.S District Judge Keith Ellison granted a temporary restraining order Friday evening. A hearing has been scheduled Saturday morning to determine if the order should be made permanent."


Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, commented with the detailed information:


Sometime after FEMA "requested" that the media not take pictures of dead bodies, someone else (apparently "Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security director") thoughtlessly tried to add a few guns behind the suggestion, making it a "zero access policy," which in turn sent (or so I understand) the main CNN attorney to Houston, where New Orleans' federal district court had taken refuge, to block it. Possibly much to his own surprise and joy, he succeeded! Forget Fox not joining, it's not their fault; nor did ABC, CBS, and ABC, since there just wasn't time to get them onboard.

Since hearing about this from "my source," I've been trying to find this on the web so I could pass it on to you, but apparently it's too much inside media baseball, so you got it to me before I could get it to you. Congratulations, you friggin' bastard.

Anyway, here's how CNN.com reported it (look for it buried inside "Katrina aftermath" there, if for some reason you care to chase it):


Judge blocks ban on media access to recovery of bodies in New Orleans

HOUSTON (CNN) -- At the request of CNN, a federal judge in Texas Friday night blocked emergency officials in New Orleans from preventing the media from covering the recovery of bodies from Hurricane Katrina.

Attorneys for the network argued that the ban was an unconstitutional prior restraint on news gathering.

U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison issued a temporary restraining order against a "zero access" policy announced earlier Friday by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city's homeland security director.

A hearing was scheduled for Saturday morning to determine if the order should be made permanent.

In explaining the ban, Ebbert said, "we don't think that's proper" to let media view the bodies.

CNN News Group President Jim Walton said the network "has shown that it is capable of balancing vigorous reporting with respect for private concerns." (Posted 9:00 pm)


I understand, by the way, that a few of the CNN crew boats were "requisitioned" for rescue efforts by some government types, which in fact they apparently have the legal right to do.


Something is up here, and our Wall Street attorney suggests this may come down a press blackout based on claims of Executive Privilege –


If will recall from yesterday's post, invoking executive privilege for national security reasons may be just the ticket. Nixon tried this gambit over thirty years ago and we all know the result. If this is the intent of W, to quote the famous philosopher, "Bring it on!"


Rick in Atlanta:


This celebrated "philosophy major" (just kidding) being W hisself, of course! I predict he will do his best to pretend this never happened.

But even if the administration backs an appeal and loses (which I think would happen if they did), he could always just say his argument didn't prevail. No impeachment in any of that, I would guess.


Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, asks a question:


About the photo ban in NOLA - do authorities, on public land, have ANY right to ban 'news' photos? Just wondering here in Paris –


Our friend who teaches MBA students all they need to know about marketing sends this:


CNN in the streets has been the single eye on the ground for all the world to see - and I applaud them even when they can't help but inflict bias (and personal outrage) into their coverage. They're exposing us to their (modern live media) personal dilemma of role-conflict as reporters who don't have resources to help those around them, when that's not their job. The effect on the individual reporter has been a great lesson in personal and professional responsibility in our electronic news-gathering era.

And I gladly also give them full credit for whatever political catastrophe befalls the spin doctors!


And this from Rick Erickson in Paris:


10.09 - Paris Salutes
RE: NOLA Photo Ban

• Given the strangeness of the United States I was only wondering.
• This BushCo has been doing a lot of manipulating, spinning, outright lying, so why not simply say that news can't cover the disaster of the century?
• Cool move by CNN to find a judge that thinks.
• But remember that BushCo is a master of spin city. These 'little' issues tend to make people forget the main, big issues. There's a high level of noise and chatter, almost like a blizzard of anti-radar tinfoil.
• French news is now reporting that 'Brownie's CV had horse show promoter on it. For the French, this is a bit like having a game show host do the job of the national TV-news anchor (which is the case with TF1).
• Meanwhile France had a bit of rain. The meteo forecast it as a 'red' alert and down it came, the rivers jumped their banks, and towns became under water. The first storm was followed by an 'orange' alert storm 12 hours later, and it dumped half as much rain at the first alert. But residents are sore because the flooding was worse.
• Meteo-France's explanation - the color of the alert is based on how much rain is expected, so the first 'red' alert was not understated. But the second alert, 'orange' for half as much rain, fell on ground already soggy from the first storm - adding up, on the ground, to 'red' again. Meteo-France said it is only concerned with what's in the sky. What's on the ground is somebody else's department.
• Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy said this was 'not right' and has to be fixed. Meteo-France said it was going to review its storm category rating system. The review was already on its agenda.
• Meteo forecasting is complex enough, requiring the world's best computers. Try adding 30,000 variables of ground conditions to the forecasts and we'll all have to go back to looking out of windows again.
• Meanwhile, on a possibly upbeat note, Jacques 'the Bulldozzer' Chirac was released from the military hospital yesterday. He had been under treatment for an accident to a blood vessel in his brain, characterized as 'not really bad.' Too prove it he waltzed around the hospital parking lot, kissed nurses, shook janitors' hands, and acted like the good-time Jacques we all know and love. Madame Jacques was on hand to steer him into a waiting limo, and the two of them rode off into the afternoon sun, towards their cozy home in the Elysée Palace. TV-news showed old clips of Jacques eating and drinking with both hands at places like the Beautiful Cow Show, to remind us that he has lifelong habits that he will have to overcome if he doesn't want to end up totally gaga.
• Doctors have therefore canceled his trip to the United States. You will have to put up with tall Dominique 'only George Hamilton's tan is tanner' de Villepin and his cunningly smooth speech habits. We have recently learned that De Villepin can jog, trot, semi-run, play with dogs on a beach, and swim - and looks pretty fit for a Frenchman who doesn't chop bushes.
• Since I haven't anything else in mind I may as well be the first to point out that De Villepin looks a bit like the actor, Stewart Granger. Which means better looking than any of your actor presidents or governors. Please remember that De Villepin is French, belongs to France, and you have to give him back. We would exchange him for Sarkozy, but the idea of Sarkozy running the United States is more disturbing than the guy you've got. Better that he gets an appointment as governor of Corsica.
• And of course, the Commies are having a fine time this weekend at their Fête. They thought it wasn't raining - it's traditional! - but now it is. Red, wet joy in La Courneuve, again, by God. And because it's raining, I for one am skipping today's Technoparade and its knock-knock joke of music. The papers are still on strike so the turnout will only be about a quarter-million. • Uh oh, it's lightening outside - it'll be a steambath for the technoloopies.


Ah life goes on elsewhere, but if I have the right, Bush has a this hurricane business making him look bad, the war dragging on, polls showing him dropping to the lowest presidential approval rating ever recorded - thirty-nine percent on Saturday, September 10 - and now Dominique 'only George Hamilton's tan is tanner' de Villepin is coming to visit?  The man the righteous right hates?

The powers that be are having a bad couple weeks here.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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