Before anyone gets slap-happy over the candor exhibited by the media at the height of the Katrina disaster, consider that it happened in a near total political vacuum. Certainly, with the Bush PR machine reasserting itself in a directed (read: take-no-prisoners) effort to regain control of the disaster narrative, you can expect the media intimidation and arm twisting to be nothing short of punishing.
Of course, the speculation is that thousands of bodies (as well as goodness knows what other catastrophes and complications) are yet to to be found in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Surely, there is no shortage of reporters and photographers expecting to cover the effort. Still, if Bush/Rove has anything to say about it, the media and the public will remain less the wise as to whatever is encountered, be it epidemiological, environmental, technological or humanitarian.
Ostensibly, the bias against photography is to respect the dignity of victims. (It’s the same line that has justified hiding the returning caskets of American soldiers killed in Iraq.) The real reason, however, is to stem the devastatingly bad publicity arising from plainly devastating images like the one above — as well as anything worse.
(The fact that the crisis in now ten days old and we are still seeing images like this one below –appearing today in a NYT front page article specifically about the abundance of corpses downtown — is the kind of visual damnation that even Rove can’t counterspin.)
FEMA may be run by political hacks that are inept in the face of humanitarian tragedy. But what hacks do know how to do is respond to political disasters. As a consequence, we have the edict in the news clipping above that appeared as a minor item in yesterday’s Times. (Perhaps, instead of detaching FEMA from the Homeland Security Department, as some have proposed, it should be transferred to the Pentagon which has already figured out how to both appropriate and embed reporters at the same time.)
In light of the new media “restrictions” (read: “censorship“), it’s not surprising the NYT was relegated to photographing one of these rescue boats from shore on Tuesday, rather than from a passenger seat.
I’m sure the guns are for fending off psychologically deranged residents and roaming bands of desperados, and the masks are for protecting the skin against the toxic waters. If that’s simply the case, however, how come I keep imagining the weapons as a show of force against the media and the masks symbolizing rescue workers under gag order?
(image 1: New York Times. September 7, 2005. p. A21. image 2 : James Nielson/ AFP — Getty Images. September 1, 2005. New Orleans. NYT.com. image 3: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times. September 8, 2005. New Orleans. New York Times, p. A19. Note: image cropped for appearance here. image 4: Chang W. Lee for The New York Times. September 7, 2005. p. A17.)