Three weeks ago, I linked to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard’s outburst on Meet the Press about the mother of a colleague who died, abandoned, in a flooded nursing home. Two weeks later, I said it was my responsibility to link to a correction about details of that story. And now I’ll link to Tim Russert’s ambush (David Weinberger’s quite appropriate word) on Broussard and Brian Oberkirch’s wise and blunt perspective about all this.
This turned into a game of factual gotcha and in the process some lost sight of the real story and the real tragedy and that is by far the greater failure.
On this week’s Meet the Press, Russert replays Broussard’s emotional appearance for him and then goes after him on the facts. The woman who died was in a nursing home where the owners have been indicted for neglecting and not evacuating their residents. So, Russert says, that’s not the feds’ fault, huh? Russert gets up on a factual high-horse but Broussard puts him right back in his place, explaining that he learned what he said from his staff and that he certainly did not cross-examine his colleague about the mother he could not rescue, who had just died. That does not make the story of neglect of the entire city of New Orleans by government at all — all — levels any less vital. And Broussard says so:
Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued….
Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man’s tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man’s mother’s death? They just buried Eva last week… It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother’s died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can’t get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff’s office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?
What kind of agenda is going on here? … Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we’re living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you’re in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything’s a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.
Russert keeps riding his horse. He wants Broussard to somehow say that by getting facts of this story wrong, his criticism of the feds was thus invalidated, was not “fair” (and what a schoolyard word that is in this context). Broussard won’t bite.
Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That’s for history to document. That’s what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn’t come. The Red Cross didn’t come. I’ll give you a list of people that didn’t come here, sir, and I was here….
Did inefficiencies, did bureaucracy commit murder here? Absolutely, it did. And Congress and the media will flush it out and find it out and those people will be held accountable. You’ve already given an example. These people in the nursing home in St. Bernard, they’re getting indicted. Good. They ought to be indicted. They ought to get good old-fashioned Western justice. They ought to be taken out and administered to like they did in the old West.
Yes, there’s a lot of people that they’re going to find that are going to be villains in this situation, but they’re also going to find for the most part that the Peter Principle was squared. The Peter Principle is you promote somebody to the level of incompetency, but when you promote somebody to the level of incompetency in a life or death department, then those people should be ousted. Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I’m sure Congress and the press is going to do that.
Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.
Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody….
David Weinberger sums up the journalistic sin of losing the forest for the trees, the story for the facts:
It was an attempt to discredit the story’s teller in order to deny the story’s meaning. It was contemptible.
Too much of journalism is turning this way today: If we nitpick the facts and follow some rules some committee wrote up, we’ll be safe; we’re doing our jobs. No, sir, our job is to get more than the facts. Anybody can get facts. Facts are the commodity. The truth is harder to find. Justice is harder to fight for. Lessons are what we’re after.
Tim Russert lost sight of the story because he was embarrassed that bloggers caught a guest on his show with facts that were wrong. Russert’s proper response should have been to fix those facts quickly and clear but still pursue the real story. Instead, he chose to shoot the messenger who embarrassed him with the bloggers. He lost sight of his real mission.
Says Brian Oberkirch:
I was offended by how quickly the whole discussion went meta. Bodies yet to be retrieved & buried, folks hanging from their own rafters holding onto life, literally, by their fingertips — and pundits, bloggers and media types were already well on their way to converting the storm into a object lesson for their own rhetorical strategies. Hijacked our suffering for their own stories….
Here’s a new way to think about blogging and all forms of consumer generated media: forget fact checking [your] ass. That’s a parlor game for grad students and professional cynics. Yes, you caught some high-profile folks screwing up. Good on you. We’re frying bigger fish now, and you can’t play with us if you haven’t got the emotional heft. I’ve seen do-it-yourself media help us reconnect as human beings. Help one another as individuals in need. Answer a calling to the better parts of ourselves. That’s where I’m putting my energy.
You see, the reason jouranlists were getting praise for their coverage of Katrina and New Orleans was not because they got blown over by winds or soaked in sludge or spewed and fixed facts (many of which go unfixed). The reason people sat up and listened again was that they heard human beings stripped of their dispassionate institutionalism who tried to tell the real story again.
How soon we forget.