Press not prevented from showing Katrina bodies

Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW YORK — Challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed on
Sept. 10 not to prevent the news media from showing the recovery of bodies of
Hurricane Katrina victims.


The government won't, however, permit photographers to join recovery workers in boats or helicopters during the mission to recover bodies from flooded
homes.


CNN filed suit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency in U.S.
District Court in Houston late on Sept. 9, concerned about two statements made
by government officials that day. The officials said they didn't believe it was
right for the news media to show pictures of Katrina victims.


Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security director, said the recovery
effort would be done with dignity, “meaning that there would be no press
allowed.” Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore later said there would be zero access to
the recovery operation.


In a hearing Sept. 10 before U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, Army Lt. Col.
Christian DeGraff promised that recovery teams would not bar the press from
watching. Satisfied, CNN agreed to put its case on hold.


“We believe very strongly in the free flow of information and felt it was
necessary to have access to tell the full story,” said Jim Walton, CNN Newsgroup
president.


He said CNN had proven in this story and others that it doesn't put
gratuitous images on the air.


Army Lt. Col. Richard Steele said that DeGraff's statement didn't represent a
change in policy. Reporters can watch recovery efforts they come upon, but they
won't be embedded with search teams.


“We're not going to bar, impede or prevent” the news media from telling the
story, he said. “We're just not going to give the media a ride.”


Images of Katrina's victims have frequently been part of the story, and the
Associated Press offered such pictures to its subscribers over the weekend. None
of them showed victims' faces. The AP picture of a dead body in a wheelchair,
wrapped in blankets and resting near a wall, is one of most-remembered images of
the tragedy.


“Photographs of flood victims' bodies is part of the overall coverage of
Hurricane Katrina,” said Cliff Schiappa, AP's regional photo editor for the
Midwest. “When choosing an appropriate image, we do not want to be gratuitous,
but rather put the image in context of the flood and suffering. The government
is very concerned about the recovery efforts being done in a dignified manner,
as it should be done. As members of the media, it's our job to show the world
that such an effort is being made and carried out.”


Some Bush administration opponents are suspicious that there would be efforts
to limit pictures of bodies so the public wouldn't be reminded of the
government's response to the storm. They likened it to restrictions against
taking pictures of bodies returning from the war in Iraq.


But CNN's Walton said he didn't think the “zero access” plans in New Orleans
had anything to do with politics.

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