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September 08, 2005

An open letter to some misguided people

Item: On Wednesday, September 7, Reuters publishes an article headlined FEMA Wants No Photos of Dead:

NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. agency leading Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts said Tuesday that it does not want the news media to photograph the dead as they are recovered.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized for its slow response to the devastation caused by the hurricane, rejected journalists' requests to accompany rescue boats searching for storm victims.
An agency spokeswoman said space was needed on the rescue boats.

"We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media," the spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

(via Los Angeles Times)

Later that day, Reuters follows up with Media groups say FEMA censors search for bodies, which begins:

WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) - When U.S. officials asked the media not to take pictures of those killed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, they were censoring a key part of the disaster story, free speech watchdogs said on Wednesday.

The move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in line with the Bush administration's ban on images of flag-draped U.S. military coffins returning from the Iraq war, media monitors said in separate telephone interviews.

"It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story," said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, an authors' group that defends free expression.

The left-wing "watchdog" Media Matters responds with an article titled "Where is media outrage over purported government attempts to restrict Katrina coverage?"

Where is the outrage, indeed.

Okay, this is addressed to all you good folks at Media Matters, especially the signatory to that article, S.S.M. (No person with those initials appears on Media Matters's masthead.) This is to the freedom-lovin' guys at PEN America Center and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. This is to Tom Rosenstiel, director of Columbia's prestigious graduate school for journalism's Project for Excellence in Journalism, who was quoted by Reuters as calling FEMA's request "an invitation to chaos". This is to all our friends on the left, to Kos, to Atrios, to the fine crew at Democratic Underground who I know without looking are outraged, outraged at Chimpy McBushitler's attempts to censor the media.

To all of you people, and might I say quite a crowd you make, fasten your seatbelts. We're going on a journey through the Land of Make Believe. We're going to play Let's Pretend. We're going to exercise that empathy thing you always accuse Republicans of lacking.


Okay, here we go. Close your eyes and pretend... you're a poor black resident of New Orleans. You're a single mother with a five-year-old daughter. As Katrina approaches landfall, you have nowhere to go. You ride public transportation to work and don't own a car. The city isn't using its massive fleet of transit buses and school buses to ferry people out of town for the supposedly mandatory evacuation, so you obey your mayor and go to the "shelter of last resort", the Superdome.

And there you find Hell.

First comes the terrible storm, and the howling winds that tear off part of the Superdome's roof. But that's just the beginning of the nightmare. As the days tick by, you have little food, little water. You try very hard to sleep in a plastic stadium chair, but it's not easy, not with tens of thousands of other people making noise and the air gradually clogging with the stench of feces. You don't know it, but your governor has ordered Red Cross and Salvation Army trucks halted because she wants to encourage you to leave. And finally you do... but not before you lose your daughter.

One minute she's holding your hand as you stand amid the increasingly hysterical and violent crowd, the next minute she's swept away by the human horde and you can't grab her arm before she vanishes. You have no idea where she is. You pray she's all right, that she's somewhere in the flood of people around you.

Finally, after endless hours of worry, misery, hunger, nausea, and abject terror, an armed man wearing a uniform pushes you onto a bus. You don't know where it's taking you, but somehow you eventually find yourself somewhere where at least you can get food and water, and the toilets aren't overflowed to the floor.

You check the web for news of your daughter. You ask around. You manage to get in touch with some of your former neighbors and ask if they've seen her, but they haven't. You're more scared than you've ever been in your life, but you have hope. You know there are plenty of lost children who are perfectly safe, and you're praying as hard as you can that your daughter is one of them.

And then you're watching CNN footage of FEMA teams sweeping the city. A human form comes into view. The cameraman zooms in close... and there she is, your daughter. Her corpse is bloated from the gas excreted by her internal bacteria as they digest her from within. The rats have gnawed off a good portion of her face. Her body bears bruises as mute testimony to indignities suffered while alive.

Okay, that's enough imagination. Back to reality. You're not throwing yourself to the floor and crying hysterically while beating the television with your fists, you're in your comfortable home or office that never floods to the roofline. But did you maybe, just for a second, catch a hint of what she's feeling?

Just a hint, mind you. I know I could never fully understand that kind of pain and I doubt most of you could either, but you don't need to have somebody stomp on your heart to know that it'd hurt like a bitch. Do you understand? She's not a real person, but there are people out there like her. Web sites are filled with pictures of men, women, and children missing after Katrina, placed there by people who are desperately seeking news of their loved ones, people who are trying their hardest to cling to hope as it fades away. Do you want them to learn the tragic news by seeing a bloated corpse in the newspaper? Do you understand that getting a picture of a dead person that you can wave around triumphantly and shout Bush's fault! isn't worth it?

Think about it.

UPDATE: Welcome readers from Media Matters for America! Stick around, you may learn something.

September 8, 2005 in Hurricane Katrina | Permalink


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This is just crazy. You are not the voice of reason.

They tried to evacuate using buses during Hurricane Georges. They ended up with people on the road. The road system in New Orleans is not sufficient to get everyone out. They have to wait to evacuate New Orleans until the people in the parishes further south, people in even more exposed locations, have had a chance to get out. The buses in New Orleans were not insured to be used as evacuation buses. The school bus drivers were not licensed to drive evacuation buses. Those drivers had families that they needed to help evacuate. If buses were going to be used, other buses, from other locations, with outside drivers needed to be used.

The mayor told people who could not evacuate to go to the SuperDome with enough food and water for 5 days. If someone 'obeyed' the mayor, they would have brought food and water. The city did use buses to ferry people to the shelter of last resort.

This was not a "SHELTER". A "SHELTER" has food and water stocked there, and encourages people to remain there. They wanted people to evacuate, and so they purposefully set up no shelters in the city of New Orleans. But they did know that not everyone could evacuate, and so they provided a shelter of last resort for those that could not. FEMA was supposed to provide enough food for those people until they could be evacuated after the storm passed. It was FEMA that was supposed to be feeding them, and it was FEMA that fell down on that job. Considering the conditions in the SuperDome (they had experience with what happened to the SuperDome the last time it was used as a shelter of last resort), should they have encouraged people to stay there by setting up a TRUE shelter there? Of course not!

The National Guard led people in an orderly fashion to the buses 12 at a time. There is no chance that a mother and a child would be separated in the way you describe. You are suggesting something that could not happen.

And then you suggest that cameramen from news crews zoom in on dead bodies. They do not. Never have, and never will.

Now, a child may have drowned in the flood, and a parent may recognize the clothing that the child was wearing, and that would be painful to the parent. It would be painful to anyone to recognize the clothing, and therefore the dead body of anyone they knew, but we know it would be especially hard on a parent losing a child.

So, if you had wanted to address this issue, you could have. Instead you present an impossible set of circumstances, making it much worse than it could ever be, and close with the baseless allegation that people want to show dead bodies because they want to make Bush look bad.

So, let's say that a mom doesn't know if her child is dead or alive. She sees her child's clothing in a video on the news, and knows then that her child is dead. How is that worse than seeing a picture in the county morgue's office of that same child in those same clothes? How would that be worse than being told that your child died based on your reports of what that child was wearing the last time you saw them?

You are combining the pain that any parent will feel and laying all the blame for that pain on the messenger that would inform the parent of the child's death. It is the child's death that is painful - the way that the parent is informed of that death has little effect. They have had to suspend 'regular rules' because of the extraordinary events. They have published pictures of missing children and pictures of found children with missing guardians against their regular rules to help with the identification process. They normally do not identify those that have died without first informing the next of kin, but this is different, and should be different.

You are the one that is trying to defend Bush here by making unfounded accusations and creating strawman arguments.

Posted by: John | Sep 9, 2005 10:26:15 AM

John's comments regarding FEMA are not totally accurate. FEMA is a coordination entity not a primary responder. In this case both the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were prepared to render assistance at the Superdome, but were refused access by State Officials. Supposedly, this was done to prevent drawing more evacuees to the site. People more familiar with disaster relief than I will need to decide if this was a wise course of action, but it is unfair to blame FEMA for the results of this decision.

Posted by: Roger | Sep 9, 2005 10:46:35 AM

When I first heard of alligators eating corpses, I thought "Cool. I want to see some video of that!"

Then I stopped myself. I realized those corpses had once been someone's loved ones, father, child, mother.

I became ashamed of my first ghoulish desires to see the dead being eaten by animals.

Why can't the media get the idea that just because they CAN show such images, doesn't mean that they should or that those images would enlighten or inform the viewers as citizens. Overall, it wouldn't be a good idea.

Yet, selfishly, journalist continue to insist that they will show such images.

I, for one, ain't buying what they're trying to sell. They become electronic crack pushers.

Posted by: Whitehall | Sep 11, 2005 10:00:03 AM

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