WASHINGTON (AFP) – In the emotional aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, US television”s often deferential treatment of government officials has been replaced by fiercely combative interviews and scathing commentary.
As the scale of carnage became clear and the government was seen as tardy in its response, TV news anchors and reporters dropped their dispassionate reserve in favour of stinging comments straight from the heart.
"We talk to mothers holding babies, some of these babies three-, four-, five-months-old, living in horrible conditions," the usually urbane CNN reporter Anderson Cooper told viewers from New Orleans last week.
"These people are being forced to live like animals. People need to see what it”s really like here. People are dying at the convention center, and there”s no one coming to get them," the anguished journalist said as US officials insisted that the rescue operation was in hand.
Later Cooper interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she thanked US President George W. Bush for his efforts to help her state, stressing that he has seen bodies in the street and a lot of angry citizens. "Do you get the anger that is out there?" Cooper asked her.
Such openly hostile challenges are a far cry from the unquestioning support accorded Bush”s government following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the start of the controversial US-led war in Iraq in 2003.
Another CNN anchor branded Bush”s first visit to the Katrina disaster zone an exercise in political public relations, while interviewers universally challenged top government officials who said the situation was under control.
Even on conservative Fox News, which usually gives weight to the administration”s point of view, anchors and reporters faulted the government for not getting help to survivors of the calamity for five days.
CNN”s Miles O”Brien on Thursday became locked in a war of words with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a member of Bush”s Republican Party, over whether the government and military had done enough to prepare for the ferocity of the category 5 Hurricane Katrina as she headed for the US coast.
O”Brien challenged the governor, whose state was also hit by Katrina, when he denied that the US government had "dropped the ball" in its handling of what has become one of the country”s worst-ever natural disasters.
"Governor Barbour, surely there was enough knowledge in advance that this was a huge killer storm a matter of days, not hours, before it ever struck a landfall," O”Brien asked.
Meanwhile, even as apocalyptic pictures of the storm”s devastation wiped all mention of the Iraq war off US television screens for the first time in more than two years, top officials insisted the rescue of thousands of trapped survivors was proceeding as it should.
"People are getting the help they need," said Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown on NBC”s Today show.
"This is an ongoing disaster. This disaster didn”t just end when Katrina left," he said.
Media expert Peter Levine, of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, said the shift in stance of American television was a return to normal following four years of toeing the government line following the September 11 attacks.
"After 9/11 those who publicly dissented from support of the president and the government were rounded on from all sides," he told AFP.
"The political calculation of (opposition) Democratic politicans was that it was best to support the president and so no one wanted to be seen dissenting, giving the media little to base any criticism on," he said.
But with local officials, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin openly slamming the government response to the New Orleans catastrophe, usually reserved media feel free to do the same, he said.
Added to that, the horror played out on live television belied the government”s claims that its preparations for the storm and subsequent rescue effort had been sufficient.
"(Television stations) have people on the ground and are seeing a huge difference between what they are being told by officials and what they are actually seeing," Levine said.