Media Presence Essential as Katrina Rescue Efforts Continue

Josh Marshall has relayed word of a “sea change in the treatment of reporters trying to get access to the city from yesterday to today.” Journalists now seem to be getting through New Orleans without any troubles. Speaking for most of us, he writes, “I’d be curious to know what may have happened behind the scenes over the last thirty-six hours” that led to the change.

Good question — what did happen? After all, it’s fairly clear who had the incentive to keep journalists out of New Orleans: President Bush’s handlers, who are worrying themselves over public opinion fallout. But who would ever pressure the administration to let the journalists back in?

Easy. The rescuers.

Officials in New Orleans believe that anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand people remain in the city, and search teams are still trying to save stranded holdouts.

Media presence is critical to this type of disaster response. Reporters find and report on gaps that are not being filled; they locate people and identify fires and other urgent emergencies; their coverage always triggers private donations.

Their ability to communicate (particularly in a case like this, where communications systems are still not fully in place) supplements the broader operation. Consider that the media is playing a central role in family reunification, broadcasting interviews with victims in New Orleans while putting out the names of loved ones to whom they want to get the message that they’ve survived.

And with a skeptical public — as well as Democrats and Republicans in Congress — calling for an investigation of the disaster response, the transparency afforded by the media’s presence couldn’t be more timely.

It heartens me to hear that federal officials are no longer frustrating the work of reporters. When that kind of behavior occurs in Africa and other poor regions of the world, our government cuts off foreign assistance, downgrades diplomatic relations, and demands that changes be made.

For the sake of the survivors still trapped in New Orleans, let’s hope FEMA considers changing its ways for good.

— Gayle Smith

[Gayle Smith was chief of staff of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and served as the special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council under President Clinton.]