As efforts continue along the Gulf coast to contain the massive oil slick, the framing of the issue has already taken a sharp political turn. Rush Limbaugh and his brethren on conservative talk radio are blaming 44 for reacting too slowly, making comparisons between the spill and how 43 handled Hurricane Katrina . The Fox News opinion programs are sure to follow suit in the coming days, if they haven’t already.
Administration officials making the rounds on Sunday shows were careful to emphasize they’ve been monitoring the situation “from day one”, trying to push back against a major criticism of the prior administrations reaction to Katrina, namely that it was too little, too late. Secretaries Napolitano and Salazar blatantly showed that the line was a political talking point, fitting it into pretty much each answer they gave. The President himself did the same later when he spoke after having surveyed the area. But are the two events really comparable?
The obvious parallel between Katrina and the oil leak is the areas that were/will be impacted. Many of the same places struck by Katrina will now have oil polluting their shorelines. The environmental damage will be catastrophic. Livelihoods of fisherman and others who live off the sea will be lost. Tourism will suffer. This is a tragic event. But just because two bad things happen in the same place within a 5-year period doesn’t mean they’re similar.
As far as the human toll is concerned, the oil leak and Katrina are in completely different realms. While the explosion that sunk the oil rig resulted in 11 deaths, Katrina killed almost 2,000 people and displaced roughly a million more. Economically, Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing nearly $100 billion in damages. It’s hard to fathom the spill surpassing that figure. Plus, British Petroleum, who operated the rig, is on the hook for the costs of cleanup, thanks to legislation passed after the Exxon Valdez spill 21 years ago.
Which brings me to my larger point of how the media depicts reality. It is certainly fair to examine the reaction of the current administration and see if more could/should have been done earlier. But equating their response to this crisis and the post-Katrina response is completely inapt.
For one, hurricanes are an annual occurrence. The Gulf coast is vulnerable to them. It was no secret that if a big enough hurricane hit New Orleans, what happened was going to happen. It’s a city built largely below sea level with levees that weren’t built to handle a hurricane like Katrina.
Oil spills, especially of this magnitude, are far more rare. The Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 is probably the most relevant comparison, when nearly 11 million gallons of oil leaked into Prince William Sound in Alaska.
However, in today’s media market, everything 44 does must be compared with everything 43 did, regardless of the lack of actual similarities, all in the name of “fairness”.
Fairness means presenting reality as objectively as possible, not covering one issue the exact way you covered a mostly different issue just because the party in power has changed and you’re afraid of showing up on Media Matters or Newsbusters (I’d link, but I despise both sites).
Media today, for the most part, seems to have lost sight of what being fair really is. We’re left with news presented by either known partisans, or journalists who believe that apples must be compared to oranges, or in this case, hurricanes to oil spills. And we’re all worse off for it.
P.S. Props to Klosterman for the post title.