Since Bill Moyers retired, I watch PBS pretty rarely. I remembered why when I saw the NOVA special on New Orleans, “The Storm that Drowned a City.” It gave some useful chronology, but in an hour-long program on the genesis and history of the storm, they avoided raising even the possibility that the Bush administration may have contributed to the disaster.
I waited and waited for discussion of global warming’s potential role in fueling Katrina’s ferocity. Finally, near the end, this science-focused show spent maybe a minute quoting a scientist suggesting a possible link, and then quickly undermined his words by having the prime expert they kept coming back to dismiss the connection. They didn’t even try to link Katrina to the broader pattern of global climate change-related disasters, like increases in tornadoes, floods, droughts, and forest fires. (A year before Katrina, Swiss the world’s second largest reinsurance company, warned of a potential $150 billion annual toll from these kinds of disasters). The NOVA show just kept repeating the same loop of scientists saying, we dodged the bullet before, but it’s headed for us now.
The program also made no mention, despite a lengthy discussion of the New Orleans levees, of the Bush administration’s $71 million cuts to the budget of the Louisiana Corps of Engineers, even after FEMA had flagged a hurricane swamping the city as one of America’s three most likely national disasters. They talked about the erosion of wetlands that once formed a critical hurricane buffer, but blamed it all on channelized rivers no longer depositing silt, while ignoring the additional impact of Bush reversing a Clinton era directive that protected the wetlands from commercial development. Saying nothing that might even remotely challenge this president, they took a critical issue and rendered it innocuous.
On some level, this didn’t surprise me. It’s a clichÃ© to say that PBS has become nothing but Big Bird, Brit imports, and home repair shows. But it’s true. There’s not much to challenge us, aside from the odd documentary and the occasional Frontline show. (One on the history of FEMA that followed the NOVA program was actually pretty good, including footage of Bush Senior saying “I’m not going to play the blame game” after his own political appointees left FEMA wholly unprepared when Hurricane Andrew devastated large parts of South Florida in 1992. But in endless interviews with Michael Brown it never did mention the International Arabian Horse Association connection, perhaps for fear raising that history would be viewed as unseemly, or needlessly provoke the Suadis). I still urge my Senators to keep supporting PBS just to keep this potential public commons open for the future. But for now, the network increasingly seems the bought and paid for subsidiary of WalMart, ExxonMobil, and Archer Daniels Midland. A resource that once helped us think about real questions has now become largely a civilized distraction.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association, and winner of the Nautilus Award for best social change book of the year. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org