The votes are in: Katrina and hurricanes were the media stars of 2005.
Katrina and Rita made it onto almost every top-five list of the last year's "big news stories" -- which makes it all the more shocking and tragic how poorly key stories about the hurricanes were covered.
Consider this take last week from a Knight Ridder reporter, which says that Katrina coverage was one of network TV's best moments in 2005:
The flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was the biggest TV story of 2005, and while it minted a couple of new stars, notably CNN's Anderson Cooper, mostly what it did was give voice to the poor and bewildered ordinary citizens stranded by the storm.
Their voices accumulated, and the din humbled a president, exposed the shoddiness of a government relief agency and performed a public service.
We must have been watching different channels. Sure, some of the "on the scene" coverage was powerful and shocking, although in many cases TV crews only had to point the cameras and let reality speak for itself.
But TV media was also "humbled" -- or should have been -- for the "shoddiness" of its coverage: remember the black folk "looting" vs. the white folk "finding"? The sensationalist hoopla over marauding gangs, convention center killing sprees, and snipers shooting at relief helicopters -- nearly all of which turned out to be completely untrue?
Print and radio media did much better than the TV networks -- NPR and several daily papers had flashes of brilliance -- but to me, the huge story of 2005 is how many big stories the media missed about Katrina and how little they told the public about the disaster's long-term significance.
How many pieces have you seen about the 110 offshore oil rigs devastated by Katrina and Rita, causing oil spills 75-80% the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989?
How many pieces about the closing of Charity Hospital -- the only place dedicated to serving poor patients in New Orleans -- because there was no federal aid to stop budget cuts?
How many about the 3,700 people still missing?
Let's put it this way: ask a person on the street, and they likely know more about the mythic rampaging looters than the real dangers of oil pollution and people losing health care.
Most importantly, I think the media especially failed in showing why Katrina was, and is, a national -- as opposed to local or regional -- issue.
After Katrina struck, the public had little understanding that every decision made by leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi, and to a lesser extent Alabama and Texas, relied entirely on Washington: would Congress and the White House put up the money they promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast, or not?
Bush and Congressional leaders dragged their feet for months. During the wait, hurricane survivors ran out of money, and public services in New Orleans and smaller towns disentegrated.
Then, in the third week of December, the national GOP leadership triumphantly announced a "$29 billion package" for Gulf rebuilding. But even that turned out to be a fraud, in another story almost completely ignored by the media. Thomas Oliphant of the Boston Globe, in a December 22 column, was the only one to catch what was happening:
In attempting to understand the shameful puniness of the response by President Bush and Congress to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, I ran across an interesting number the other day. That number is $29 billion.
This is presumably the sum just voted for the task of shifting from cleanup to actual reconstruction -- of both properties and lives.
I say presumably because the number turns out to be a fraud. In fact, it represents the allocation of large sums of money that Congress has already appropriated. More precisely, much less than half of it -- about $11.5 billion -- is what they call "new" grant money. The rest is simply the result of the reshuffling of already appropriated sums.
How often has the media been telling this story?
If Katrina coverage was the media's shining moment in 2005, we're in worse trouble than I thought.