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Bush, CNN and Journalistic Objectivity

Could it be that CNN is doing the Bush Administration's bidding? In this article from France's Liberation, the author lampoons the network's apparent uncritical airing of Bush Administration photo ops from the Katrina disaster zone.

By Daniel Schneidermann

September 9, 2005

Liberation - Original Article (French)    

President Walks With Firefighters in Biloxi, Mississippi on Sept. 2.

Suddenly, interrupting the interminable live CNN coverage on Katrina's aftermath, a helicopter landed. The anchorwoman discovered it at the same time we did. She said so. She doesn't know what is on it. She doesn't know where it came from. She doesn't know who's on it (we have an idea). She only knows (someone must have whispered that into her earpiece with no further details) that it is a video tape. We imagine immediately that it's Bush. It was, perhaps, before his stop in Mobile (Alabama), where we just saw him try, with the strength of a leader, to harangue what we think to be rescue workers in front of a fire truck, with a line of firefighters in the background as decoration. Or perhaps it was afterwards?

Can someone tell me? asked the anchor.

The last time we saw CNN broadcast a videotape without being aware of the contents during a catastrophe like this, it was of a speech by bin Laden taken live from Al-Jazeera, in which he callied for the total destruction of America. And the channel, which showed it in order not to be "scooped" by Al-Jezeera, ate its foot afterwards. This time, clearly, less is at risk.

Bush gets out of the helicopter. In short sleeves, he salutes men in t-shirts on the runway. Among these men, is "Trent Lott, who lost his own house," says the anchorwoman. At least she is sure of that. A convoy of cars sets off on a road. The camera has gotten into one of the cars trailing the convoy. On the shoulder of the road there are some puddles, inoffensive but promising (we're approaching the site of the drama). The anchorwoman continues to follow the expedition along with us, at the same time as the rest of the planet.

She gives us the details as she learns them. We are in Biloxi (Mississippi). Bush gets out of the car. He walks onto a street in a devastated residential neighborhood. He walks alone, officials in t-shirts a few steps behind him. And then two black women approach the "President of the United States," as the anchorwoman reminds us at this moment (Really! Take note! Think about the importance of this moment!)

Bush Comforts Victims in Biloxi on September 2. Were the Victims Pre-screened? Should Anyone Ask?

He greets them as if they had an appointment. A woman and her daughter appear. Why these two? Were they waiting for him? Who chose them? Why this bit of America instead of the thousands of similarly devastated streets? They cry. And suddenly we hear their voices distinctly, and that of Bush. Where is the microphone? We understand that they have lost everything. Bush repeats I understand, I understand. This goes on. Bush hugs one, hugs the other, in front of the camera. They cry again.

And then we understand what we are seeing. He is getting his photo op. Handshakes with soldiers, with helicopter pilots, with excavators, with hoist operators. Handshakes that will finally fill the previews on CNN. Because they were missing images. It demanded them. That was what was needed. The aerial shots, which CNN has shown from the beginning, were not sufficient to tell the story. Because it was said from the beginning that CNN had chosen the aerial shot. While Fox News sent its reporters to shove their microphones in the faces of ninety-year-olds left to mold in wheelchairs, CNN, for some reason, didn't go there.

Interminable aerial views. Helicopters on tarmacs. Empty images that say nothing about the heart of the drama. Interviews with notable people. Interviews with survivors, but at the airport, when they are pulled out of the action. And then, later, the army convoys, the soldiers with their weapons in hand who come to look at the survivors like wild animals. So both, Bush and CNN, need to enrich their imagery of the catastrophe. And CNN, very kindly, gives us an unrestricted view of the flow of the primary materials, the few minutes offered to all of the world's televisions, so that they can choose the few seconds that will dance in the farandole. [The farandole is a dance in which men and women hold hands, form a chain, and follow a leader].

And, understanding this, we shiver with unmentionable hope: and what if the two women that Bush was holding in his arms pulled away and insulted him. And what if they thwarted the operation. And what if they gave the world an image of rebellion against the governmental negligence. It is crazy how many bad thoughts have struck us since the beginning of Katrina. For example, when we learned that Europe is going to give the United States part of its strategic oil reserve, we said to ourselves: "But why? Let them deal with it themselves." Immediately, we are ashamed to think that. And immediately afterwards, we say to ourselves that we shouldn't be ashamed. We can't figure it out.

Return to Biloxi. Ok, so are they going to pull away? But, during these unmentionable seconds, we remember that they aren't live. We are watching an edited tape. The one who edited it (likely from the Bush team) knows the ending. If he kept the sequence with these two women, if he chose it perhaps among several other identical sequences, it is because this ending pleases him. And, all of a sudden, in the middle of the sobs, a feeble smile, then two, then three, break like a confirmation. He won. He brought a smile to the lips of the survivors.

Come on, it's nothing. Nothing but a drop of additional bitterness in the murderous flood.

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