FEMA has "requested" that no news footage be taken of bodies being recovered from the disaster in New Orleans (and presumably elsewhere, as well). Reporters are apparently being actively blocked from filing stories or broadcasting from inside the Houston Astrodome, a major shelter for evacuees. TV broadcast trucks are being turned around by the National Guard at Jefferson Parish, on the way towards New Orleans. And those listening in on emergency radio frequencies for updates are finding those signals suddenly jammed. All of this suggests an Iraq-like clampdown on information and news getting out, now that the White House - and President W himself - has taken an interest in the disaster. (I will leave aside my cynical and bitter editorial comment - you can fill in the blank, if you wish.)
My non-cynical and distressing comment has to do with the role that television news plays in creating news, that is, creating that which a society believes is important. Marshall McLuhan would say that there cannot be more than one active war in the world, since the television camera can only point in one direction at a time. Think about it in today's context - does Iraq "still exist" (in the consciousness of the average American)?
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of the levees, major television news outlets were there with their cameras and microphones, recording the tragedy and people's responses to it. This became the news of the country, and it was only through the outcry of both local officials and residents that federal relief efforts effectively began. But because of the disaster that was the initial (i.e. for the full first week) federal response, the Bush administration had a (political) crisis on its hands of unprecedented magnitude. As the Army Corps of Engineers stemmed the flow of water into the flooded city, so too did the White House Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Karl Rove himself no doubt, begin to stem the flow of information out of the flooded city - and all cities flooded with evacuees and stories of their plight.
"If we show what's actually going on in there, the terro... err... hurricanists will win!"
The Bush administration is a television administration - possibly the last of a long line of television administrations that began with Kennedy. It has never been able to deal with the phenomenon of emergent transparency enabled by ubiquitous communication and pervasive proximity, even from an area that has been effectively knocked off the grid. Thanks to those who need only to get out a snippet of information each, a large and comprehensive picture can be constructed, and that picture is even more revealing about the distressing failure of a government, in so many more dimensions than television could ever begin to reveal.
[Technorati tags: new orleans | katrina | censorship | news media | emergent transparency]