How the Beltway press (not Rush Limbaugh) launched "Obama's Katrina"

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Let's review the blame game with regards to the historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Naturally, AM taker turned-emergency response expert Rush Limbaugh accused the president of bungling the clean up and now facing his own Hurricane Katrina-like crisis of confidence. Of course, Fox News, serving its role as the Opposition Party, trumpeted the allegation. (From Fox Nation: "Heckuva job? Obama scrambling after week-old spill.") And yes, there was something deeply ironic about right-wing, government critics lamenting that the government didn't do more, when the same haters have been screaming for sixteen months that the government already does too much.

You likely know all that. But here's what you didn't know -- it was mostly the mainstream media that concocted the absurd "Obama's Katrina" claim in the first place, and then helped actively push it. Journalists did it by pointing to mostly faceless, imaginary "critics" of the Obama administration in order to float the phony storyline.

Reporters and pundits last week couldn't find independent experts on disaster or emergency response who criticized the government's actions in the Gulf of Mexico. Reporters and pundits couldn't even find Republican members of Congress to blast Obama and his team. So instead, the press just decided to do that on its own and pretend it was news.

So here's my admission: I got it wrong last week when I wrote that the "Obama's Katrina" narrative was a perfect example of how conservative, GOP Noise Machine elements shape the mainstream media's take on the news.

I got it wrong because after going back and looking at more of the coverage of the politics of the oil spill, it's now clear that in this disturbing case it was the Beltway press that hatched the bogus "Obama's Katrina" meme, and then served up on a platter to the appreciative Noise Machine, which happily amplified it. In this instance, the sloppy misinformation campaign was concocted not by feral, Obama Derangement Syndrome bloggers, but by corporate journalists working from some of the biggest names in the news business; New York Times, the AP, ABC and CBS.

Journalists had virtually no factual foundation upon which to build the "Obama's Katrina" story. But that didn't seem to stop many.

It was the Associated Press that helped kick off the misguided "Obama's Katrina" talking point with a spin-heavy report by Calvin Woodward, which hit the news wire on the night of April 29. The article rather breathlessly suggested there would be all kinds of dire political consequences for the White House (not the oil industry) because many more millions of gallons of oil were spilling into the ocean than previous believed [emphasis added]:

Now questions are sure to be raised about a self-policing system that trusted a commercial operator to take care of its own mishap

Did you notice the nifty trick? The AP couldn't point to anyone of importance who had actually raised serious questions about self-policing. But the AP was confident somebody would, so the AP included that claim in a news article.

That speculation-as-news approach then allowed the AP's Woodward -- based on no actual reporting -- to wonder out loud, "Will this be Obama's Katrina?" Keep in mind, nobody quoted or mentioned in the article ever raised the Katrina specter. That was introduced by the AP, and the AP alone. So with the help of the AP, the "Obama's Katrina" ball began to roll.

A few hours later on the night of April 29, the Washington Times published an article by Joseph Curl, which leaned hard on the Katrina angle:

The rapidly expanding environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is presenting a growing political challenge to the Obama White House, with Mr. Obama and his aides at pains to defend the response and forestall comparisons to the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

But like the AP, Curl and the Times couldn't actually point to anybody who was making that connection with the oil spill. In fact, nowhere in the Times article were any Obama aides seen defending the oil spill response to forestall Katrina comparisons, for the simple reasons that nobody was making those comparisons.

It probably shouldn't have to be noted, but I'll do it here anyway: Journalists are supposed to be in the business of reporting news, not manufacturing it. But in this case, the "Obama's Katrina" angle appeared to be too alluring for journalists to ignore and to not manufacture.

The next morning, on Friday, on ABC's Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos interviewed Obama advisor David Axelrod and launched the Katrina meme into the big time:

Here's this morning's Associated Press: "Will this be Obama's Katrina?" Should the federal and state governments have done more and earlier?

That question then became the news. Meaning, the fact that the White House was now being asked to defend the "Obama's Katrina" comparison (a comparison that nobody besides journalists were actually making at that time), meant that the 'story' had entered the media bloodstream and that it was now completely legitimate to raise questions about something that nobody was actually saying. (Limbaugh followed Stephanopoulos' lead and began pushing the "Obama's Katrina last Friday.)

For example, here was the Los Angeles Times on May 1, one day after Stephanopoulos asked about "Obama's Katrina" on ABC:

Criticism of the federal agencies as too slow to recognize the seriousness of the spill reflects the difficult balancing act faced by the Obama administration as it increasingly takes ownership of disaster response in a region still angry over the Bush administration's reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Slight problem: The Times article did not include any criticism that federal agencies had acted too slowly. None. So if the Times couldn't find any relevant officials making a connection to Katrina, why did the Times feel it was okay to make that connection on its own?

That same day, this New York Times headline was quite clear:

Shadow of Hurricane Katrina Hangs Over Obama After Spilll

By whose estimate did the "shadow of Hurricane Katrina" suddenly hang over the oil spill? Answer: By the New York Times' own estimation, of course. Because nobody in the article ever mentioned Katrina. The best the daily could do was point to faceless "critics":

The fact that Mr. Obama has no plans to visit the Gulf Coast in the next few days has already raised the eyebrows of some administration critics, in particular as it relates to the president's plans this weekend.

The Times then promptly failed to quote a single administration "critic" making that claim. The Christian Science Monitor also published a wildly presumptive headline on the topic:

With Katrina comparisons inevitable, Obama plans oil spill visit

Really? It was just an automatic that a sudden oil rig catastrophe 400 miles off the coast would be compared with a forecasted hurricane that took the lives of more than 1,500 people and nearly buried an entire U.S. city?

But the Monitor insisted it was so, and even pointed to "some" people who made the Katrina claim:

But even as public pressure stepped up on the oil giant for failures to take greater safety precautions and for overestimating its ability to contain a major blowout, the Obama administration also moved to contain what some described as a "sense of déjà vu all over again" among Americans as federal response once again seemed overwhelmed by a major disaster.

The article never identified who the all-powerful "some" were. But oh my, the "some" were busy last week connecting Obama to Katrina! Just ask CBS's Katie Couric:

Some people in the Gulf are saying this reminds them, in in fact, of Katrina. They're saying why didn't the government hope for the best but prepare for the worst?

Over at ABC, Jake Tapper heard the "some" whispers as well, as he asked This Week panelist George Will, "George, I've heard some critics say this is Obama's Katrina. Is it?"

As best I can tell, last week the first "critics" to ring the alarm about "Obama's Katrain" were journalists. Partisan AM talkers simply followed their lead.

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