How the hard-bitten hacks of America went soft over Katrina

US journalists may have got some facts wrong over the Gulf-Coast hurricane, but they caught the mood of the nation, says Andrew Gumbel
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They lost all pretence of detached objectivity and instead gave full vent to their frustration and anger. Some even cried on camera. At one point, the biggest Bush administration cheerleader at the already robustly pro-Bush Fox News, an often indelicate show host called Sean Hannity, tried to temper his correspondents' anti-government tirades with the line, "I want to get some perspective here..."

His interlocutor in New Orleans, Shepard Smith, cut him off to devastating effect: "That is perspective! This is all the perspective you need!"

Last week, though, when Hurricane Rita provided the anticlimactic follow-up to the devastations of Katrina, those same reporters found themselves standing alone in the driving wind and rain, struggling not only to maintain their dignity on camera, but also to come up with a valid reason why they were doing this at all.

Fox News's Mr Smith, now in Beaumont, Texas, was blown several feet and knocked to the ground during a live two-way. Anchor Greta Van Susteren, dry and comfortable in the studio, didn't even stop talking as Smith struggled to get up and find something solid to cling to.

Much has been made in the past few days of the media's sometimes drastically imprecise reporting on the hurricanes. Widely disseminated tales of rape, murder and attacks on children at the two putrid storm shelters in New Orleans, the Superdome and the convention centre, turn out to have been wildly exaggerated. Ditto the death toll, which has dived from an initial estimate of 10,000 or more to somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000.

In truth, though, the media was not solely - or even principally - to blame for getting these things wrong, since reporters were largely following the lead of the mayor and police chief of New Orleans who have had a much harder time explaining why they gave so much credence to rumour and hysterical overestimations of an already dire situation.

What is much more striking is how the US media, which has often seemed cowed by governmental authority since the 11 September attacks, gave a brief show of real reporting gusto - telling it like it is, challenging government officials on air, exposing their evasions and distortions and, sometimes, rank ignorance.

After that initial flurry, however, the networks and cable news outlets have reverted dramatically to type. Not only are they again allowing the government line to be broadcast blandly and uncritically; they are actually showing signs of regretting the naked emotionalism of those first hectic days after Katrina struck.

No example of the changing mood is more graphic than Tim Russert's highly-rated Sunday morning show on NBC, Meet the Press, which garnered more than its usual share of attention a few weeks ago because of an interview with Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, just across the Mississippi from New Orleans.

Mr Broussard burst into tears on air as he told the story of the elderly mother of one of his own colleagues, trapped in a nursing home in a low-lying area. For days, Mr Broussard, said, the mother asked her son when help was coming. But it never materialised, despite her son's best efforts, and after five days of rising floodwaters she drowned.

For a while, it looked as if this could be the pivotal moment when the entire country decided enough was enough - with the Bush administration and the whole corrupted culture of politics of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.

But then Mr Russert lost his nerve and caved in to pressure from Bush apologists who noted, firstly, that Mr Broussard was a Democrat, and secondly, that there appeared to be some discrepancies in his nursing-home story. Mr Broussard was duly invited back to Meet the Press, and essentially accused of telling tall tales.

It was an almost unfathomably heartless piece of gotcha journalism, which Mr Broussard, to his credit, rebuffed in no uncertain terms. "Are you kidding?" he said. "What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death? They just buried Eva last week ... that wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried."

Interestingly, the public has shown a clear preference for the more emotional, immediate reporting of the first few days of Katrina. A Gallup poll released in mid-September showed three-quarters of Americans giving their approval of the coverage - a remarkably high number in a country where journalists are way down on the public approval scale along with second-hand car salesmen and litigation lawyers.

It didn't take long, though, for the journalists themselves to squander this public goodwill. Fox News's most melodramatic correspondent, Geraldo Rivera, was in the Superdome in the immediate wake of Katrina and made a special point of showing the faces of desperate, poor, black mothers with their babies without access to food, water or medicine.

Soon, however, he clearly decided that he was the story, not the hurricane, and took it upon himself, with the cameras rolling, to help rescue a wheelchair-bound old woman from a flooded building. The real rescue workers looked on, nonplussed by his antics, and his act quickly became fodder for satirists, TV critics and late-night chat show hosts.