Networks Blamed Feds For Katrina Failure, Credit Them for Sandy

When it comes to natural disasters, ABC, CBS, NBC coverage reveals double standard.
  • Networks Show Feds Double Standard: Despite huge failings on the part of local and state government, the Bush administration and FEMA took most of the network criticism in 12 days of Hurricane Katrina coverage. But in a 12-day period of Superstorm Sandy coverage, the networks praised Obama and his response time and again, even as many remained without electricity. There were 49 stories blaming Bush or the feds in the 2005 period, compared to 14 stories that praised Obama in 2012.
  • ABC Finds No One to Blame for Millions Still Without Power: On Nov. 6, ABC “World News” reported in one story that there were a million people still in the dark and afraid the coming northeaster would take out power again. In that story, no one was faulted for the continued lack of electricity.


Hurricane Sandy ravaged New Jersey and New York on Oct. 29, 2012, after tearing up the East Coast. It brought heavy rain, massive flooding and wind gusts of up to 115 mph, and left hundreds of thousands of people in need. The storm also claimed at least 125 lives. But network coverage revealed a double standard about who they blamed in the wake of a natural disaster.

It has been nearly a month since the storm struck New Jersey and New York and caused millions to lose power from the eastern seaboard to Michigan and outrageously many people are still lacking basic needs. “The Rockaways still look like ghost towns,” The New York Times reported on Nov. 25.

Earlier this month, columnist Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times that some customers of the government-run Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) might not have heat until Christmas.

Nocera wrote of touring one of the hardest hit areas, the Rockaways, with a volunteer named Nan Shipley. He said they met a father of two, whose baby had bronchitis, who had come to the a local city councilman’s office for help saying, “Our house is too cold. The baby will get sick again. We need a place to stay.” Later Shipley and the man asked FEMA officials if they could help. Disgracefully, their answer was to “call 911.”

The Times reported on Nov. 13, that in a meeting four days before Sandy hit, the LIPA trustees only spent 39 seconds discussing it, even after huge failures in 2011 when it took nine days to restore power for more than 500,000 people affected by Tropical Storm Irene. Crews trying to restore power are hampered by an “antiquated record system.” “After that storm, the State Public Service Commission issued a report that upbraided the authority. The authority’s monitoring and information systems were nowhere ‘near the industry standard,’ said Walter P. Drabinski, a consultant on the report,” according to the Times.

Throughout its reporting and op-ed pages, the Times has revealed the pain and suffering that Sandy inflicted and that the government, federal, state and local, has yet to fully address. The newspaper has found reason to be upset with LIPA and FEMA. They even found criticism of the Red Cross response. Often network reporting reflects the views presented in the Times, but not in this case. The broadcast networks spent the first 12 days following the storm mostly praising the response and President Obama, and found little to condemn other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s original plan to have the NYC marathon run as planned (it was later cancelled).

Not only have the networks failed to show the depth of the suffering in places like the Rockaways and Staten Island and parts of New Jersey, it’s praise for the federal government was also the exact opposite of how the networks covered the tragedy caused by another natural disaster: Hurricane Katrina. Certainly Katrina was a much bigger tragedy,  but as people continue to struggle in New York and New Jersey the networks unwillingness to criticize the federal response was striking.

The Media Research Center’s Business and Media Institute examined transcripts of coverage in the 12 days following each tragedy and found a key difference: who they blamed. In the first 12 days of Sandy, Obama was praised in 14 network stories. But in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, network evening news programs blamed President George W. Bush or the feds in at least 49 stories for a “botched” and slow response.

Occasionally, those 2005 stories said all levels of government were being criticized, but the failures of local and state officials like Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco were mostly ignored. The networks defaulted to attacks on the Bush administration, rather than scrutinizing deadly mistakes made by local and state officials ahead of and following the storm.

Despite Horrific Conditions in NY, Sandy Gives Obama A ‘Bounce’

Houses were washed away, damaged, engulfed, knocked down and burned down because of Sandy. President Obama said on Oct. 31, that federal, state and local officials would all be responding to the affected individuals.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently requested $42 billion in federal aid for New York, while estimates of New Jersey damage were at $29.4 billion. But weeks after the storm, many people are still in great need. In contrast to 2005, the networks found a very different story to tell while other outlets like The New York Times continued to expose the tragic conditions facing New Yorkers and New Jerseyans.

A Times editorial on Nov. 8, noted that “more than 15,000 of public housing units closest to the city’s shoreline” were estimated to still be without heat, hot water or electricity.”

“Life for these people is grim. One Wednesday [Nov. 7] afternoon, in the Far Rockaways, hundreds lined up for as much as three hours in the cold to get hot food promised by a makeshift delegation of volunteers. The multiple government agencies promising help were nowhere to be seen,” the editorial continued.

Another Times article on Nov. 5, highlighted misery in Queens. They said it had “become one of the epicenters for the simmering sense of abandonment felt in still-darkened areas of New York City, and out into the suburbs and beyond, including large swaths of New Jersey and Long Island, where the lack of power was made more problematic by persistent gas shortages.”

Occasionally, network stories mentioned the frustration of people in New York or New Jersey, but there was little finger pointing at local, state or federal officials and certainly not the president. On Nov. 6, ABC “World News” reported that there were a million people in the dark and afraid the northeaster would take out power again. In that story, no one was criticized for so many still being without electricity.  

Although they were firmly convinced that the buck stops with the president in 2005, this time, even as New York news outlets reported on Nov. 5 that there might be 40,000 homeless and in need of shelter as a snowstorm targeted the already battered region, the networks continued to give Obama credit for a crisis well handled.

Instead, the networks praised or credited Obama in connection with Sandy over and over again. For example, on Nov. 7, a CBS “Evening News” story said that Obama and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie had “worked together to help the hurricane victims.” The reporter editorialized, “doing the right thing is usually the best politics.” Some of those reports crudely suggested it would (or had already) help him with his re-election bid, one calling it a “Sandy bounce.”

According to Politico, exit polls indicated 41 percent of voters thought Obama’s storm performance had been either “important” or “most important” in their vote.

But the worst criticism to be found in any of those network reports was for Mayor Michael Bloomberg who angered many by allowing the New York Marathon to go forward as planned as people in Staten Island and elsewhere were in desperate need. Bloomberg was eventually pressured into cancelling the run.

Although BMI only looked at the first 12 nights of coverage, the conditions in New York and New Jersey have remained horrendous for some. The CBS New York website reported on Nov. 13 that a high-rise housing complex called Knickerbocker Village on the Lower East Side stunk of rotten eggs and residents were still without power and hot water, 16 days after Sandy.

Some New Jerseyans have also said they are unhappy with the federal response to Sandy. The Jersey Journal reported on Nov. 15 that small business owners impacted by the storm say “the loans being offered FEMA and the Small Business Association won’t be enough to put them back in business.”

On Nov. 25, The Blaze reported that one Sandy victim, Donna Vanzant, had not been helped despite Obama’s personal promise of “immediate” assistance. She was photographed with Obama on Oct. 31, but told she is frustrated that she hasn’t been helped by her insurance companies or the government. Speaking of Obama’s visit she said, “Looking back on it, it wasted a lot of people’s time.”

President Obama finally visited the storm-torn areas of New York on Nov. 15, 17 days after the storm hit (on Oct. 29). Paul Bedard wrote for The Washington Examiner reported that a child reprimanded the president for not coming sooner saying, “We need help - he should of been here a long time ago.”

Katrina Failures of City and State Pile Up on Bush

Both storms have been called once once-in-a-century kind of storm. In the case of Katrina, she was huge and powerful and the city of New Orleans’s low-lying location made the damage worse that it might have been elsewhere. Many mistakes were made and those mistakes took lives. But the networks focused almost exclusively at blaming Bush and his administration.

Using sound bites from survivors living in misery and Louisiana politicians, Bush was pounded night after night following the massive storm.

On Sept. 2, 2005, Bush and the federal response was blamed or criticized in 17 separate stories. In one ABC report, Mayor Nagin was quoted blasting the Feds saying “get off your asses and do something.” Reports also turned it into a race issue, alleging response would have been swifter if the affected people were white.

It was much later that news outlets began to expose the failures of Nagin and Blanco. The Chicago Tribune reported on Sept. 11, 2005, that while Bush “deserves” some blame, it was Blanco who had denied access for the Salvation Army and Red Cross to assist people in the Superdome. According to the Tribune, “Nagin did not provide enough security at the Superdome, or water or emergency sanitation. As for food, he thought the people would pack lunches for three days, like on a campout. Good plan, Ray. Why didn't the White House stop you?”

Nagin had gotten other things wrong too, according to a column on U.S. News & World Report. “[H]e delayed the evacuation order, had no drivers ready to operate the school buses that stood idle, failed to stock the Superdome with food and water, and let the looters rampage without any interference from police,” John Leo wrote. He also wrote that long before the hurricane Nagin recorded a DVD message saying to city residents without transportation “You’re on your own,” if a hurricane strikes, because the city couldn’t afford to evacuate them. (The DVD hadn’t been released before the hurricane hit).

The same networks that had berated Bush for the wars, for the economy and anything they could find rushed to judgement and found the president at fault again and again for the days of misery and death following the storm.