the underreported stories coming out of the Gulf Coast last
week was the effort of the federal government to censor news
reporting of rescue operations in New Orleans. On Friday morning,
FEMA announced that it would have a “zero-tolerance” policy
with regard to press access to federal rescue efforts. A FEMA
spokesman said that it wouldn’t be “proper” to let members
of the media view dead bodies. The concern, apparently, was
for the dignity of the corpses floating in the streets.
By Friday afternoon, CNN had secured a temporary restraining
order from a judge in Houston banning the curious federal
policy. On Saturday morning, government attorneys told the
judge that the “zero access” policy had been withdrawn, and
that the press would be given unfettered access to New Orleans.
Nonetheless, the press continues to report regular, if not
systematic, interference and threats from uniformed federal
rescue workers. Either word hasn’t filtered down to the troops,
or Bush and company are continuing to play a shell game with
As late as the mainstream media was in getting to the party,
network correspondents still beat the feds to the submerged
streets by several days. From Wednesday on, journalists were
explaining to clueless federal officials—on camera—about the
horrors that were occurring at the moment.
So, in the name of “human dignity,” the feds on Friday tried
to cut the media out. Yeah, right.
This all seemed suspiciously similar to the attempts to ban
the media from showing coffins of dead soldiers returning
from Iraq. Unidentified coffins. The dignity of the coffins,
apparently, was the concern.
The displaying of dead bodies in the media has always been
a sticky issue, shrouded in religious traditions and notions
of propriety and taste. It has been particularly acute in
the United States, where the media display of corpses has
long been more restrictive than elsewhere. The singular failure
of the U.S. media to regularly show the human carnage in Iraq
has been cited as a major reason popular perception of the
war is so vastly different here than everywhere else in the
It appears that this reluctance to show dead bodies in the
media has been an organic, rather than legal, tradition. Quick
research reveals only one previous recent circumstance where
the courts got involved with the issue: In 1996, a federal
appeals court ruled that the television stations could not
shift political campaign spots that featured images of aborted
fetuses to late-night “safe harbor” hours. As these images
(used to promote the campaigns of anti-abortion candidates)
could not be termed “indecent” even under the FCC’s squishy
rules, and because federal law barred the censorship of political
campaign materials by broadcast stations, the court ruled
that pictures of dead fetuses had to be allowed on the air
all day long.
Interestingly, the dignity of fetuses was not discussed.
By any measure, the government’s newfound dignity concern
is a pretext for censorship. Bush had little concern for the
dignity of Gulf Coast residents when he spent an hour talking
patriotic gibberish at a VFW conference in San Diego on Aug.
30, while New Orleans quickly filled with water, and while
the entire region quietly lay devastated from Katrina. After
having been caught with its emergency preparedness team of
inept former Bush campaign flunkies dozing at the switch,
the federal government and its sycophants have gone way below
low by resorting to smearing the press as uncaring, opportunistic,
and disrespectful. It’s typical Rovian bullshit, and for once,
it doesn’t seem to be sticking.
On balance, the dignity, such as it is, of those who died
in Katrina’s wake must yield to the public’s right to see
what is in fact going on. The magnitude of the disaster and
the enormity of government’s failure to respond leave no room
for the red herring niceties of “common decency” and “appropriateness.”
Dead bodies are still bloating in the streets of New Orleans.
While it is too early to tell, Katrina may usher in a sea
change in the journalistic world. The quality, nature, and
zeitgeist of mainstream media have morphed over the last two
weeks. Those few journalists left at the networks are starting
to walk the walk, expressing outrage, and even rediscovering
the lost art of the follow-up question in the face of the
monolithic “staying on message” crap being fed to them by
government officials. One commentator said last week that
Katrina would prove to be the most significant event in modern
journalism since Watergate. In a fishbowl where the truth
is labeled “liberal bias” and mild criticism is derided as
unpatriotic, we can only hope that this is the case.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment and
copyright law at Albany Law School. Contact info can be found