You don't have to listen very closely to the news to register the striking tone coming from many of the journalists involved in covering the floods along the Gulf Coast. They're passing along public anger.
The officials are dealing, as Chertoff said, with the flood, which is both a catastrophe and an incredible obstacle to addressing it. There are thousands of police, guardsmen, and relief workers trying to rescue people from dangerous waters. Communications channels — like cell phones, landlines and Blackberrys — have broken down. There's no easy response to handling this. But Brown's answer to O'Brien suggests the value of the media's tenacity in challenging what the feds actually know:
"Well, we're busy doing life-saving and life-rescue efforts," Brown said. "We rely upon the state to give us that information. And, Soledad, I learned about it listening to the news reports."
They are slicing through talking points, reflecting instead their own observations and those of their colleagues, and mirroring the desperation of many of the people they are interviewing.
On Thursday evening, Anderson Cooper of CNN interviewed Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat whose father was mayor of New Orleans in the 1970s. And she said help was on the way:
"Thank President Clinton and former President Bush for their strong statements of support and comfort today," she said. "I thank all the leaders that are coming to Louisiana, and Mississippi and Alabama to our help and rescue. We are grateful for the military assets that are being brought to bear. I want to thank Sen. Frist and Sen. Reid for their extraordinary efforts. Anderson, tonight, I don't know if you've heard — maybe you all have announced it — but Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating."
Here Cooper interrupted: "I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi," he said sharply. "And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
"And when they hear politicians slap — you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?"
Others are also pressing senior public figures for specific answers. On National Public Radio Thursday afternoon, Robert Siegel questioned Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the dire conditions for thousands of people who were not allowed into the New Orleans Superdome but were directed instead to the city's convention center.
Chertoff said aid workers were confronted by a "double catastrophe" – a hurricane followed by a flood that complicated the delivery of supplies. But he said several times that any refugee from the flood who got to a "staging area" like the Superdome — and presumably, the convention center — would have food and water.
When Siegel asked him again about the convention center, Chertoff said, "You know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something, I think it's dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place..."
But Siegel bored in on the nation's top homeland security official, "But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there is — we shouldn't listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they've covered wars and refugee camps. These aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people there."
Chertoff said he was unaware of it. Immediately after that conversation, however, NPR correspondent John Burnett austerely set out precisely what he and producer Anne Hawke had witnessed. After the interview was taped, a spokeswoman for Chertoff called back. She confirmed Burnett's report — and said supplies would be directed to the convention center.
This morning, anchors continued to push back. CNN's Soledad O'Brien pressed FEMA director Mike Brown pretty hard about the federal agency's lack of knowledge: "How is it possible that we're getting better 'intel' than you're getting? We had a crew in the air. We were showing live pictures of the people outside of the Convention Center. We had a National Guardsman who was talking to us, who was telling us he estimated the crowd at 50,000 people. That was at 8:00 in the morning yesterday. And also, we've been reporting that officials have been telling people to go to the Convention Center if they want any hope of relief. I don't understand how FEMA cannot have this information."