Media ignored, mischaracterized Pelosi's account of Bush query on federal response to Katrina: "What didn't go right?"


Numerous media outlets have mischaracterized or ignored entirely House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) account of how, during a conversation with her at the White House, President Bush allegedly demonstrated that he was, in Pelosi's words, "oblivious" to the federal government's failures in responding to the threat and subsequent destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

As outlets such as the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service have reported, Pelosi said at a September 7 press conference that in a meeting with Bush the previous day, she had pressed him on whether he would fire Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown because of "all that didn't go right last week [in New Orleans]." According to Pelosi, Bush replied: "What didn't go right?" Reporting the exchange, Pelosi described Bush as "oblivious, in denial, [and] dangerous."

Pelosi's full account, as aired on the September 7 edition of the CBS Evening News:

PELOSI: When I said to the president that he should fire Michael Brown, he said, "Why would I do that?" I said, "Because of all that went wrong, with all that didn't go right last week." And he said, "What didn't go right?" Oblivious, in denial, dangerous.

But other media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), mischaracterized Pelosi by reporting her description of Bush as "oblivious" and "dangerous," but omitting her report of their exchange or any indication of what had prompted her assessment.

For example, Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse reported in the September 8 New York Times article:

From Democratic leaders on the floor of Congress, to a speech by the Democratic National Committee chairman at a meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Miami, to four morning television interviews by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats offered what was shaping up as the most concerted attack that they had mounted on the White House in the five years of the Bush presidency.

"Oblivious. In denial. Dangerous," Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and the House minority leader, said of President Bush as she stood in front of a battery of uniformed police officers and firefighters in a Capitol Hill ceremony that had originally been scheduled to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Americans should now harbor no illusions about the government's ability to respond effectively to disasters," she said. "Our vulnerabilities were laid bare."

Still other media ignored the press conference entirely. For example, unlike the CBS Evening News, neither ABC's World News Tonight nor the NBC Nightly News mentioned Pelosi on their September 7 newscasts. The Los Angeles Times also failed to make any mention of Pelosi's September 7 remarks.

CNN, Fox News, and The Washington Times also reported Pelosi's comments, though they offered comments only on Pelosi's conduct and not Bush's. After airing Pelosi's retelling of her conversation with Bush on the September 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry repeated for emphasis not Bush's question suggesting "oblivious[ness]" to Pelosi but, rather, Pelosi's subsequent remark: "Nancy Pelosi there, suggesting that the commander in chief is dangerous to the American people." Henry then noted Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman's "tough statement" in response, concluding that "there's real partisanship digging in here."

On the September 7 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Fox News congressional correspondent Brian Wilson preceded a clip of Pelosi with a comment that also focused on Pelosi rather than Bush. "Nancy Pelosi is so angry, she did something quite unusual in official Washington: She recounted for reporters her private conversation with the president," Wilson said.Similarly, The Washington Times reported in a September 8 article that Pelosi "lashed out at Mr. Bush ... taking the unusual action of recounting her private conversation with the president."

According to The Washington Times report, written by Bill Sammon and Stephan Dinan, White House press secretary Scott McClellan disputed Pelosi's account of her conversation with Bush:

Asked whether Mrs. Pelosi's version of her conversation with Mr. Bush was an "accurate portrayal," Mr. McClellan replied: "No, it's not." He said, "The president was just wanting to know what she was most concerned about."

After McClellan again stated in a September 8 White House press briefing that Pelosi's account was "not an accurate characterization" of her conversation with Bush, and CNN anchor Kyra Philips relayed McClellan's version of events to Pelosi on the September 8 edition of CNN's Live From..., Pelosi reiterated her account of the meeting with Bush and said of McClellan's response: "That's absolutely not true. Mr. McClellan wasn't there, so he couldn't possibly know."

Posted In
Environment & Science
Hurricane Katrina
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