Opinion

The media’s slippery standards

Julie Gunlock Contributor
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During the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA Administrator Michael “Brownie” Brown got a lot of flak from the mainstream media for, well…everything. Some of it was deserved and some of it was little more than mendacious piling-on, but all of it was intense and it lead to Michael Brown’s resignation from FEMA mid-Katrina response. The media is extremely powerful in this country, and what the press coverage of the latest disaster to hit the United States—the BP oil spill—proves is that the media wields this power very selectively.

During the Katrina response, in one major dust up, leaked e-mails showed FEMA Administrator Brown discussing with his staff items other than the disaster—personal things like having difficulty finding a dog sitter, telling a staffer what to order him for dinner (tater tots), and in one particularly embarrassing series of e-mails, a long, semi-flirty exchange with a female staffer where he asked “can I go home?”

For the media, these e-mails symbolized the general laziness of the entire Bush administration. They revealed a lack of concern and respect for the terrible devastation in the Gulf. As one blogger put it, “‘Order the Tater Tots’ Said Brownie, While Katrina Victims Died of Thirst.” Oh brother. The media scrutiny became so intense that the General Accounting Office launched an investigation into the e-mails.

Given this press scrutiny of the Bush administration during the Katrina disaster response, one just has to ask, where is the media outrage at the Obama administration for what many would say are more grievous examples of distraction?

Since the oil rig explosion on April 20th, President Obama has hosted a number of parties at the White House—both music concerts and receptions for professional sports teams; the president has gone on vacation…twice, played multiple rounds of golf, and attended a fundraiser for California Senator Barbara Boxer. But it isn’t just the president who appears to be distracted from the disaster; the vice president and senior White House members also appear to be having a nice, relaxing summer.

Earlier this month, CNN’s Ed Henry posted pictures of a picnic hosted by the vice president, including cute images of Rahm Emanuel and the vice president engaging in a water gun fight. That same weekend, two senior male members of the White House communications staff were pictured, sans shirts, participating in some sort of drinking game at a well-known Georgetown barbeque joint.

Now, I actually don’t begrudge the president and vice president or their staff a good time. My question lies with the mainstream media who fail to hold this administration to the same standard as the Bush administration.

If, during Katrina, any Bush administration official had been seen cracking a smile much less attending parties, there would have been hell to pay. And clearly there was in Michael Brown’s case. His e-mails were front-page news for weeks. They provided weeks of cud on which the left-wing cable network hosts chewed. And the press didn’t limit their criticism to Michael Brown. Rather, Brown became a symbol for the entire Bush administration and in some cases, all Republicans.

Conversely, the coverage of the Obama administration’s actions during the BP oil spill has been mild mannered. The press has taken great pains to compartmentalize the blame—never offering the Katrina-like generalizations that the president is both responsible and to blame for every error. For example, while offering up some mild criticism of the federal response to the ongoing spill, NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd fervently added that no one blames the president for his administration’s mistakes.

And last week, in a hard-hitting Washington Post story covering the president’s possible appearance as an extra in a ‘90s pop music video (the White House has denied it), the reporter, using an almost apologetic tone for covering this fluff said “Proof, if anyone needed it, that even in these serious times summer silly season goofs will still be had.”

Well, yes, summer fun will be had and none of these concerts and picnics and water fights would looks so bad if the administration had a better handle on the crisis. Yet there are very clear signs that the Obama administration hasn’t provided the gulf region the best response.

Consider the president’s shocking admission to NBC’s Matt Lauer that he hadn’t yet spoken to the head of BP. This statement doesn’t square well with the repeated declarations that “this [oil spill] has been our highest priority” and that “…from the moment this disaster began, the federal government has been in charge of the response effort.” The president has even declared that the buck stops with him, saying “I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis.” If that’s true, shouldn’t the president at least have had one conversation with the big bosses over at BP?

It leaves one with a general impression that there are a few too many distractions on this administration’s summer schedule like vacations, squirt gun fights, and beer pong. While these might be just “silly season goofs,” there’s a much bigger goof going on in the Gulf.

Maybe a little heat from the mainstream media might make this White House clear their collective schedules and get to work on the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.