Personally, I'm not very fond of the American media. On the one hand, there are the frivolous, superficial television news shows, with their low standards of newsworthiness and their Hollywood-driven agenda, which forces interviewees to compress complex messages into five-second sound bites. American newspapers, on the other hand, take themselves too seriously: grey, unwieldy and laboriously written, they are uncomfortable to read, both physically and mentally.
The only American news outlet that has endeared itself to me are the unparalleled news magazines, but the events of the last few weeks have somewhat changed my mind. Having been in New Orleans covering the Katrina disaster myself and having seen first-hand the way the American media has responded to the challenge, I began to see the country's newspapers in a different light.
First of all, New Orleans's local broadsheet, The Times-Picayune, had both the resources and the foresight to investigate the city's preparedness for a major flood three years ago. Their findings accurately predicted disaster. (The Times-Picayune has heroically continued to appear; in the first days of the flood, only in an online edition, but within a few days, in a slimmer print edition as well.)
The major US papers, almost three weeks after the disaster broke, are still giving it extensive coverage, especially when it comes to following the stories of the tens of thousands of families that have lost their homes and are currently dispersed across the country. I couldn't help but compare such follow-up coverage with the short attention span of the Israeli press, which promptly forgot about the families that were evacuated from Gush Katif last month, many of whom have yet to find permanent housing solutions.
As for American television news, it won the day. Thanks to its continuous quest for the next tear-jerking human-interest story, the TV stations were the first to draw attention to the horrible conditions of thousands of poor refugees holed up in the New Orleans Superdome, reaching the place before the authorities did, and forcing them to address the problem. There is no question that were it not for the shocking images shown again and again on TV, these people would have been forsaken for even longer than they already were.
But in my opinion, the US media coverage of Katrina failed in one crucial way. Many reporters and commentators didn't really make an effort to look beyond the smoke screen created by President George Bush's spin-doctors to extricate him from the public-relations debacle that arose following the administration's slow response to the crisis. Most of the media just reported what the different sources were saying while neglecting to comment on the motives behind their words.
I'm sure this is not due to a lack of insightful journalists, but because of some over-exaggerated sense of respect towards the office of the president. In fact, it is rare to read a report in the American media in which the president's words are not accepted at face value. In this sense, American journalists have surrendered the political commentary high-ground to the hosts of late-night television talk-shows; they are the ones asking the most difficult questions of the president right now.
ANOTHER THING the Americans have are serious professional media critics and forums for debate on the media. The Columbia University School of Journalism has been publishing the bimonthly Columbia Journalism Review for 44 years. Its latest edition includes a brilliant feature on the way the Israeli media covered the disengagement. "Letter from Tel Aviv," by Gal Beckerman, not only honestly dissects the local press's conduct, but also includes some breathtakingly frank interviews with major figures in the Israeli media. The feature is well worth reading on the Web site www.cjr.org.