Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Premediating Gustav, Remediating Katrina

Hurricanes are arguably the epitome of premediated news events. News coverage consists of a week or more of build-up as they are tracked from their emergence as tropical depressions in the Atlantic to their development into tropical storms and then finally their arrival as actual hurricanes headed towards landfall in the Gulf of Mexico or the Eastern seaboard of the US. In the run-up to landfall (or sometimes the turn away to the open seas), global print, televisual, and networked media coverage focuses exclusively on the virtual, premediating possible future paths along with the death, damage, and destruction that might lie ahead. More than any other natural disaster, hurricanes provide ample evidence that news media today are focused as much on the virtuality of the future as they are on the actuality of the present or recent past.

Hurricane Gustav proved particularly susceptible to premediation, both because it appeared headed directly towards New Orleans and because it appeared that its landfall would coincide with the beginning of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Not only were news reporters preoccupied with questions about how New Orleans would withstand its second major hurricane in three years and how well the Bush administration would be prepared to deal with this hurricane, but political reporters found themselves addressing the question of how the hurricane headed for the mouth of the Mississippi would impact the Republican convention being held near its source.

This impact, of course, would not be a result of wind or storm surge or rain or tornadoes, but rather of media coverage. How would it look for the Republicans to be celebrating and attacking their Democratic opponents if New Orleans was once again flooded by broken levees and people were seen stranded, or worse dying, in Gustav's wake? Perhaps equally important, how much media coverage would the Republicans receive in the face of another Katrina-like disaster? When the first day of the Republican Convention was dramatically truncated in anticipation of Gustav's landfall on Monday morning, it was a clear example of how premediation of a hurricane could have an impact not unlike a hurricane itself, how the virtual Gustav could have a real impact on thousands of delegates, convention support people, transportation and communication networks, and of course the media themselves.

Gustav was particularly interesting because its premediation inevitably entailed the re-mediation of Katrina. Not only was Gustav's trajectory and intensity compared to Katrina's, but the response of local, state, and federal governments was measured against what had happened three years ago to the week. This remediation took many forms. It was a formal remediation in that the modes of coverage (maps, weather reporters, hurricane graphics, etc.) were similar to those of Katrina or most other hurricanes. It was a remediation as well of the political practices of evacuation and storm preparation that occurred prior to Katrina. But it was also a remediation in the sense that remediation involves the notion that new media forms mark improvements of older media forms, or remedies of past defects. This was most evident in the coverage of the rebuilt and reinforced levees, the new evacuation procedures, the enhanced generators at Tulane's hospital, and the preparations made by FEMA and the federal government.

Finally Gustav offered the Bush administration something of a "do-over," a chance to prove that it had learned the lessons of Katrina, that it had remediated its own approach to natural disasters. It also offered John McCain a chance to remediate his and Bush's response to Katrina by flying to the Gulf Coast with his vice-presidential selection, Sarah Palin, in advance of the hurricane's arrival, to demonstrate that he would be a president who could take charge in situations like this. And in cutting short the convention in advance of Gustav's landfall, he could underscore his claim to be concerned more with the welfare of the nation than with his own political ambitions. McCain himself sought to premediate his own presidential behavior through the remediation of Bush's belated and feeble response to Katrina.

As often happens in the case of premediation and virtuality, the real often emerges in ways quite different from its prior mediations. Gustav struck only a glancing blow. Sarah Palin, rather than demonstrating her heroism in the hurricane ended up disclosing her daughter's pregnancy and hiring an attorney to defend her in ethics charges in her home state. And George W. Bush, in his first statement after Gustav's landfall to the west of New Orleans, emphasized the importance of what we did after the hurricane struck, underscoring the need to make sure that the energy infrastructure of the Gulf oil industries was intact and urging the Congress to enact legislation opening offshore oilfields for immediate drilling. The Bush administration fails once again to remediate itself, preferring, as in the run-up to the Iraq War and the War Against Terror more broadly, the premediation of the future to the remediation of the present or recent past.

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