In response to restrictions placed on the media covering the Hurricane Katrina disaster by New Orleans emergency operations chief Terry J. Ebbert and Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, CNN successfully filed suit against the U.S. government to protect the right of the press to photograph the deceased victims of the hurricane. But aside from CNN, most major media outlets have given scant coverage to, or ignored entirely, CNN's legal victory or the subsequent reported violations of the federal court order by government personnel on the ground.
On September 9, Honoré, who leads the hurricane relief effort, reportedly declared that the media would have "zero access" to body-recovery operations, stating that it "would not be good to have pictures of people, the deceased, shown on any media." Also on September 9, Ebbert stated that the process of recovering the deceased would be "done with dignity, meaning there will be no press allowed." Their comments followed reports from earlier in the week that the FEMA allegedly asked the media to not photograph those who died in the disaster.
Later on September 9, CNN filed suit against Michael D. Brown -- who recently resigned as FEMA's director -- alleging that "[t]he government's total ban on coverage of the victim recovery process is an unconstitutional prior restraint on publication in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution." CNN's suit quoted Honoré's September 9 "zero access" pronouncement and noted he was "acting on behalf of FEMA." On the evening of September 9, CNN host Anderson Cooper reported: "CNN has obtained a restraining order to allow access to the search and recovery of the dead from Hurricane Katrina." The restraining order was issued by U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison. At a September 10 hearing over which Ellison presided, U.S. attorney Keith Wyatt, representing the U.S. government, read a statement from Honoré's assistant chief of staff affirming that the government would not impede the media's efforts to cover any aspect of the Katrina disaster. According to a court transcript posted on CNN.com:
WYATT: Your Honor, my name is Keith Wyatt. I am with the U.S. attorney's office. This morning, about five minutes ago, I handed to counsel for the plaintiffs a statement from the assistant chief of staff who reports directly to Gen. Honore, in which the statement says the following: "This memorandum is to confirm that Joint Task Force Katrina, commanded by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, has no plans to bar, impede, or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts, including access to the sites, photographing or reporting." Signed by lieutenant -- signed by Col. Christian E. DeGraff, assistant chief of staff, J-3.
CNN has devoted significant coverage to this story. The cable network's legal victory, however, has gone largely unnoticed by most other major media outlets, according to a Nexis search*. Aside from CNN, United Press International was the only outlet to report on September 9 that CNN had filed suit.
On September 10, the Associated Press reported that because of CNN's lawsuit, "the Bush administration agreed on Saturday not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of hurricane Katrina victims." A September 10 Los Angeles Times article mentioned Honoré's comments and CNN's lawsuit in passing (Slate.com wrongly claimed the Times "scoop[ed]" the story). UPI ran a brief follow-up piece; and the September 10 Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a short article on CNN's court victory and published another short follow-up piece on September 11.
A September 11 Washington Post article devoted two sentences to the lawsuit, while the Los Angeles Times again briefly mentioned it. On September 11, the Chicago Tribune published a 200-word item on the lawsuit that was based largely on wire service reports. USA Today editor Peter Johnson mentioned the suit at the end of his September 12 "Media Mix" column.
The September 13 San Francisco Chronicle reported that soldiers in New Orleans were not abiding by the court's decision or the government's assurance of unrestricted media access. According to the Chronicle: "On Saturday, after being challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims. But on Monday, in the Bywater district, that assurance wasn't being followed. The 82nd Airborne soldier told reporters the Army had a policy that requires media to be 300 meters -- more than three football fields in length -- away from the scene of body recoveries in New Orleans." The Chronicle further reported on September 14 that in response to the Chronicle article from the previous day, "Army Lt. Col. John Cornelio, spokesman to Lt. Gen. Russ Honoré, said no restrictions are being placed on members of the media who are working independently of the military in the hurricane disaster zone." CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown similarly reported on September 12 that reporters and photographers were blocked by officials on the ground from witnessing or filming the removal of bodies and that again the Pentagon had reiterated to troops on the ground not to block press access. Media Matters for America has previously noted the lack of media coverage of the restrictions placed on journalists covering the recovery effort. Aside from the Chronicle and NewsNight, Media Matters could find no other coverage of the government's alleged continued obstruction of journalists covering the hurricane recovery effort.
A number of major newspapers that ignored or gave scant attention to the government's actions -- or to CNN's lawsuit -- published fawning profiles of Honoré, whose comments initially sparked CNN's legal action. These papers include: The Washington Post ["The category 5 general," 9/12/05]; USA Today ["Honore in charge, refusing excuses that slow cleanup," 9/12/05]; and The Christian Science Monitor ["A native son takes charge in Gulf Coast," 9/9/05].
*Nexis search was for "CNN and (suit or lawsuit or sue!) and (Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA or government)" for September 9-14.