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Among 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 On Saturday morning, government attorneys told the judge that the “zero access” policy had been withdrawn, and that the press would be given unfettered access to New Orleans.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 the truth.

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 world.

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. Show them.

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.

—Paul Rapp

Paul 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 at

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