The following is a transcription of the September 10, 2005 special edition of "FOX News Watch", that has been edited for clarity:
ERIC BURNS, FOX NEWS HOST: It is being called the 9/11 of natural disasters. As the waters recede, the death toll is expected to rise. The Gulf region is scarred, and it will be scarred for decades to come. Thousands are missing, and hundreds of thousands of lives will never be the same again.
We will cover the coverage on a special edition of "FOX News Watch" coming up after the headlines.
BURNS: Hurricane Katrina: more than a storm, a nation-changing event. That's our topic on this special edition of "FOX News Watch."
And here's the panel: Jim Pinkerton of "Newsday"; syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; Jane Hall of the American University; and media writer Neal Gabler.
I'm Eric Burns. "FOX News Watch" is coming right up.
It may well be that Americans have never seen nature behave as viciously as it has in Louisiana and Mississippi in the past week and a half. But we have never reporters behave as emotionally as they have, either.
Katrina has brought tears; it has brought anger.
An example of tears from CNN's Jeanne Meserve.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's been horrible. As I left tonight, darkness, of course, had fallen and you can hear people yelling for help; you could hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come. But for tonight, they've had to suspend the rescue efforts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: An example of anger from FOX News Channel's Shepard Smith.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: The government said, You - you go here, and you'll get help. Or you go in that Superdome, and you'll get help. And they didn't get help. They got locked in there, and they watched people being killed around them. And they watched people starving, and they watched elderly people not get any medicine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Neal, appropriate, or crossing a line?
NEAL GABLER, MEDIA WRITER: I think it was appropriate.
You know, -- look it -- I mean, I -- I think between being dispassionate and being emotional, there's a third way, and I think you saw Shepard Smith with that third way. And that's reporting what was happening.
BURNS: Even though what was happening was so negative that you sounded as if you were almost doing an editorial?
GABLER: Well, reporters travel in a herd, usually. And they all say the same things. And when they were sent down to New Orleans, they were separated from the herd; they were separated from the spin. And so they had a "Eureka!" moment. For the first time in years, we saw reporters being reporters; reporters asking tough questions; reporters looking at things and telling you what was going on. We haven't seen that in an awfully long time.
JANE HALL, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: I agree with Neal. I think the chasm between the official version of reality and what people were seeing who were on the ground has - has - has not been as strong in many, many years. And also between what people - people were experiencing this story via television and through startling, stunning still photographs. And that also, I think, contributed the outrage viewers also felt watching this story.
CAL THOMAS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: A fundamental obligation of the media is to hold their government accountable. They are doing so in this instance; government failed at every level, not only in the aftermath, but in the promath.
We are finding out now about evacuation plans that the government had drawn up that they didn't use. We are finding out about incompetence - school buses having been flooded and left in parking lots - city buses - all of this stuff broke down. And we're finding tremendous incompetence in the Bush administration, which, to its injury, I think - the president was saying that the FEMA director, Michael Brown, was doing a great job. Well, nobody believes that.
JIM PINKERTON, "NEWSDAY": Well, I think reporters clearly lost some of their objectivity and gained some of their humanity.
However, I think I disagree in Cal in that - I mean, what it showed most to me was the spectacular incompetence of the city of New Orleans. Those buses in the parking lot flooded; they remind me of the battleships at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese bombed it.
In other words, there was some much rank incompetence there that reporters -- and I give a lot of them credit for simply saying -- Shepard Smith, for example, saying, Look, it's just a fact -- we're here at the Superdome, and there's no food. That's a fact. And he wasn't - I watched that, and I also watched that on ifilm.com - he was not laying blame; he was just simply stating a simple truth.
BURNS: Well, it's not just reporters who were there laying blame, stating simple truths. It's also daytime talk show queens.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: I think we all, this country, owes these people an apology. We still don't know how many of our fellow Americans lost their lives in the Katrina catastrophe.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: And it's not just Oprah, Cal, who's there. It's Dr. Phil, whose program I watched the other day, which had a lot of violin music under it.
The question I asked Neal about appropriateness - you all agree journalists have been behaving appropriately. Is this a good venue for appropriate behavior from the Oprahs and Dr. Phils of the world as well?
THOMAS: Well, if you were a cynic, you would say that they are piggybacking like some of the Hollywood celebs that descended upon New Orleans like Sean Penn, who sprung a leak in his boat, just to - just to boost their ratings.
I don't see what they brought to the effort to help people.
GABLER: Well, Oprah informed people.
BURNS: Oprah brought 33 truckloads, at one point, of supplies.
BURNS: So there's some legitimate help..
THOMAS: But she brought her own cameras to show her good work, too.
PINKERTON: She has as much right to be there as anybody else.
THOMAS: Oh, sure.
PINKERTON: I'll make a point, too. And that is, with the retirement of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and the death of Peter Jennings, you could make a good case that she's really sort of the leading news figure in America now.
BURNS: And you feel how about that?
PINKERTON: I think that's fine. I think it's - if they're looking for a new way of presenting the news - (INAUDIBLE) - all four of us praised the emotional intensity as a - and passion about a story as important.
BURNS: And that's how she makes a living.
PINKERTON: She - and she did it on this.
GABLER: Oprah is the national emoter. That's really her job. And - and that's fine. Sometimes I think you can trivialize things by emoting over everything. But by the same token, she did raise money; she did bring things down there. And I don't think anyone can begrudge her for doing that.
HALL: I agree. I - I would not say I would think she's the successor to Peter Jennings. I think - I - I think that she has a role to play. I don't think she overstepped it. I think that it was appropriate for what kind of show she does.
BURNS: You know, I think media critics are having a hard time with this one. I think, by and large, although you can pick little incidents - by and large the media have done a.
PINKERTON: Eric, they're loving this.
Mark Jurkowitz in "The Boston Phoenix" said - quote - "Katrina Rips Bush a New One." They're - they see the chance here.
BURNS: But just to do it.
PINKERTON: Just to do what they've been able - unable to do for five years, which is torpedo Bush.
BURNS: Let me finish my point here, which is that the media critics having a hard time finding problems, other than the political. I'm not going to mention this guy's name, but there was - there was one bit of criticism I read from somebody whose name we all know in the business, criticizing the media because of the sameness of the images. As if someone is supposed to stand in New Orleans and say, Well, it's bad in Mississippi, but it looks sort of like this, so we're not going to show it to you.
I just wanted to mention - to give my nomination, Cal, for what I think is the worst bit of criticism of journalists in this whole thing.
THOMAS: Yes. What other images is - are there? I mean, that's what the picture is. And they did cover Mississippi and they did cover Alabama.
PINKERTON: Well, look, there are some things they left out.
For example, there's - I was living "The Sherman Herald Democrat" in Texas, and it was about churches and bringing people into their homes. There's been a lot of coverage of - there, that in local news, but not in national news.
BURNS: You wanted to get to politics; that's coming up.
We have to take a break. We'll be back with the politics of disaster and more.
ANNOUNCER: The Katrina aftermath, from coverage of death and destruction, to political and racial fingerpointing. We'll cover the storm after the storm.
Stay tuned for more "FOX News Watch."
BURNS: Listen to the words of Max Boot, a columnist for "The Los Angeles Times." He complains about pundits who are treating Katrina as if it were another bit of minor grist for the political mills. This, he says, "goes a long way toward explaining why politicians and the media are held in public esteem somewhere above child molesters and below bankers."
We can decide on that later, Neal. What about the issue of journalists politicizing Katrina?
GABLER: I think that depends on what you mean by politicizing.
You know, as Cal said earlier - you know, if - if asking questions - tough, hard questions of our political officials, trying to find out who is to blame so that it won't be repeated in the future - if that's politicizing - then, yes, they politicized. But I think that's exactly what the press ought to be doing. That's their job, is to do that.
HALL: I think the role of the media is to look at what happened, what the break down was, and look, as if they not looked in recent years, at various federal agencies.
And also, I think this whole language of "blame game," used by the Bush administration, now being used by some Democrats - of the media start doing it as I see they are, talking about it, I think it demeans what happens. That's not our job. Our job is to look and see, how can this be done better the next time?
BURNS: But the way we do that is to find out who made mistakes this time, right?
GABLER: Right. That's right.
THOMAS: Well, supposedly, we were supposed to find out who made mistakes on 9/11. We got a Homeland Security Department; we got billions of new dollars spent on substantive government programs that were going to protect us. Now we have not a dirty bomb or some kind of terrorist attack, we have a natural disaster. That's a great testing ground on where all this money and bureaucracy is going.
It has failed us. The terrorists ought to be plotting in humil - in happiness that they can get us. We are not ready.
PINKERTON: I completely the media ought to be unsparing and investigate all parties concerned, although I would add to Jane's list of the federal government, I'd also add the state and local government.
Charles Krauthammer had a column where he said, There's plenty of blame to go around, including - let's say this honestly - the people of New Orleans. You know, it's not - whoever was shooting at relief workers was not helping things very much. And - and - and whatever's gone wrong with the New Orleans police - you know, why the murder rate was eight times the rate of New York City before the hurricane hit. Those are serious questions that speak right to the way we educate people and train people to be good citizens. And that ought to be investigated as well.
I'm afraid that if we just simply sit and blame, you know, the Homeland Security Department, we're going to - we're not going to be at all prepared for the next disaster when it strikes a (INAUDIBLE) area.
BURNS: Well, there's another serious question that has to be asked too, and that's the place of race in journalism and covering this. It's been raised by some journalists, and it was also raised on an NBC telethon last weekend by the rap singer Kanye West:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KANYE WEST, RAPPER: George Bush doesn't care about black people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Quick. To the point.
He went on; he also said that he doesn't think - West does not think - the media care about the black victims of the hurricane either.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WEST: We see a black family, it says they're looting. You see a white family, it says they're looking for food.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNS: Let's talk about that point first.
THOMAS: That's a good point.
BURNS: Word choice is so critical in a case like this, and I think he does have a point.
THOMAS: He does have a point.
You and I are old enough to remember the civil-rights movement and the pictures, particularly during the Washington riots after Martin Luther King's assassination, where people went in and stole TV sets and other things - the Watts riots in Los Angeles, mostly African Americans. There's certain images that feed a kind of racial prejudice of predisposition.
And I think he has a point; it's looting if blacks do it, but it's sustaining life if white people do it. I don't agree that -with his contention that Bush doesn't care about black people though.
HALL: I think there's something - while we're talking and praising the media, I think the fact that - is that race and poverty are the elephant in the room, I think, in American culture. And I think a lot of people in the media first of all were reluctant to say what people were seeing with their own eyes, which is that these were largely black, poor people.
BURNS: Largely black poor people who were being ignored?
HALL: Unable to leave.
But the fact is, why was the country so surprised? I think partially the media have to take some responsibility. How much coverage has there been of the infant mortality rate of blacks versus whites? Of the poverty level?
People have been afraid to really cover any story except one that would be accused of being, you know, anti-patriotic. I think that's true.
PINKERTON: Race and - race and poverty are important. So is personal behavior and personal responsibility.
HALL: I didn't say it wasn't.
PINKERTON: I'm adding to your - I'm adding to your list. I'm adding to your list also - let's - if we're going to film poverty, let's also film people stealing TV sets and just explain why that's happening.
HALL: Why do you balance poverty with stealing TV sets?
GABLER: You know, an interesting - an interesting question is, now that - now that you've played to the crowd, the interesting question to me is - I mean, why didn't the media touch this story for so many days?
And I think they were afraid. Jane used that word. I think they were afraid that - that first of all, they might misspeak, they might be seen to be racist by doing so. And second of all, I think they were also that the - that the audience might be less than sympathetic that - look at, these are all, you know, poor black people.
And indeed, in point of fact, there were a number of - of other people in the media who, by virtue of raising that fact - Rush Limbaugh, for one - said, Well, that's being anti-American if you raise that fact.
And so - so I think they were legitimately concerned on the second issue.
THOMAS: There are a lot of people who didn't want to leave, picking up on a point of Jim. There was personal decision-making to stay there.
But let's praise the media for something, in addition to the coverage. They saw this coming; the "Times Picayune" did a story months in advance of this. "National Geographic" a year ago began to compile a story that was printed in October of last year that was basically a biblical prophecy for what was going to happen. And people ignored it.
BURNS: Actually, Cal, let's get to that after we take a break.
We're going to take a break. We'll be back to that point, and we will also discuss this:
ANNOUNCER: The mayor of New Orleans said tens of thousands may be dead in his city. But the feds don't want you to see these heartbreaking images.
We'll tackle this issue when "FOX News Watch" continues.
BURNS: Time now for our "Quick Takes on the Media." Headline number one, would you repeat that, please, Mr. Owens?
Long before New Orleans looked like this -- in fact, back in 2002, the New Orleans "Times Picayune" ran a series of reports warning that the city might look like this sometime, that the levees might not hold, that the weather might be the city's ultimate threat.
Cal, it's the point you were making earlier. And I'm wondering why it wasn't heeded. Even in 2002, might it have had something to do with the fact that so many people don't trust journalists that - that - in government, that they didn't pay attention to this?
THOMAS: It's the whole squeaky wheel thing, Eric. You know, if it's not broken, we don't fix it.
But it was broken.
THOMAS: It was a disaster waiting to happen. And the levee board down there has been a - has been as corrupt as the rest of New Orleans and whole state of Louisiana.
There were stories that were run in 2001 by a publication called "Louisiana Weekly" about the corruption of the levee board; they were putting money into casinos, private planes, hiring cronies to be on the levee board. The Army Corps of Engineers, it came out later in reportage, spent more money so far during the Bush administration on various levee projects, than during the entire Clinton administration. Something was seriously wrong.
PINKERTON: I agree with everything Cal said, but I just add, the normal rap on journalism, including cable television, is it's too chained the present; we can't get past, you know, the latest murder or scandal or something like that.
This was one case where the paper did exactly what you'd want them to do: spent a lot of money, a lot of time, did a great job, and everybody ignored it. And it's a shame.
GABLER: Because there was a price tag attached. And one of the stories that now is coming out, after the fact, is that the Bush administration and Congress didn't want to pay what it would take to reinforce these levees so that this catastrophe wouldn't happen, a catastrophe for which they war gamed, essentially, last - last summer; Hurricane Pam they called it. And they said this is exactly what was going to happen, and that no one wanted to pay for it. That's the reason that no one paid heed to it.
HALL: Well, you know, I - I - it makes you wonder whether, as humans being, we - you know, build our house on the sand, and people just simply cannot believe something until it happens. It's the job of journalists to do this, but the Picayune did it. And it still didn't have impact.
BURNS: Well, another government agency that is taking heat lately for a lot of reasons is FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now being known a lot of more comical acronyms we can't use on the air --
What has inflamed journalists most is that FEMA doesn't want pictures taken anymore of bodies of victims, of the dead. They have said, Cal, that you can't -- to journalists, you can't ride on our boats anymore. And in addition to that, we don't want you standing on a bridge somewhere shooting photos.
BURNS: ...of bodies.
THOMAS: No journalist should respect that order. Remember, we had the same controversy on the bodies, the coffins coming back from Iraq. That is a fact; it is happening. No journalists should obey that order; that violates the fundamental principles of what it means to be a journalist.
BURNS: But how do you make, Jim, the PR mistake that FEMA did of asking this? Because you know journalists are going to, A, disregard you, and, B, savage you on shows like this.
PINKERTON: Well, I mean, I think that FEMA - you know, and hats off to "Time" magazine for uncovering that Michael Brown apparently faked a good chunk of his - the director of FEMA faked a big chunk of his resume.
PINKERTON: Look, what a - what a - what a bad bunch they've got over there.
Brian Williams on his blog, and Howard Kurtz in "The Washington Post" both pointed out - and by the way, one reason - any journalists who has an armed guy pointing a gun at him and continues to do his journalism, is a braver journalist.
THOMAS: Well, I'd make an exception under those rules; if a gun's pointed, yes. I'd probably get a picture of him pointing the gun.
HALL: You know, we're now seeing reporting in "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," "Time" magazine, all reporting on the fact that FEMA was downgraded after - downgraded within the Department of Homeland Security, that these are people who are running it who were not experienced, who had nothing much to recommend them except friendship and cronyism.
You know, again, you think, Now they tell us. Could we have known that sooner? And why didn't we know that sooner? Is that story that would have been considered antipatriotic? If some - if somebody had really looked at this beforehand. That's where I wonder, could this have been prevented.
THOMAS: You know where this discussion is going? We have said this before on this show - every time there's a disaster, Why didn't we know it earlier? Because we're covering missing blondes in Aruba. That's why.
BURNS: Well, except for "The Time Picayune," which in this case did.
But again, Neal, the question about FEMA, to me, is why it's simply unenforceable and ridiculous to try and enforce this edict. Why are they trying to do it?
GABLER: Because the first rule of government is, Protect your butt.
BURNS: But no one's going to listen to you.
GABLER: Yes, but - you know, they're hopeless now. It has spiraled out of their control. What they want to do is protect their butts.
And I think Jane is absolutely right, and Cal's right. I mean, look it - we have political appointees in this - in FEMA. We have four years of budget cuts in FEMA. Why didn't we know?
I - we praised the press. Now I want to ask the question, Why didn't the press tell us that these were all political hacks?
PINKERTON: Deeper issues - evacuations in the future and military control of disasters immediately. Reporters should investigate those and talk about them now.
BURNS: That, I'm afraid, is all the time we have for this special edition of "FOX News Watch," which, like you, we all wish had not been special in the way that it was.
We anticipate getting back to your e-mails next week. Here's the address: it is newswatch @ foxnews.com. Please write to us. Tell us your full name, and let us know where you live.
As I said, that is all the time we have for this week. But certainly much more to say about this story in the weeks ahead. We'll do it. These people will do it: Jane Hall, Jim Pinkerton, Cal Thomas, Neal Gabler.
And I'm Eric Burns, thanking them and thanking you for watching. We'll see you next week, when "FOX News Watch" will be back on the air.
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