Tsunami: Where US Media Failed
Dr. Michael Saba, sabamps@aol.com

A friend posed a question to me. He said, “You write about these things all of the time. Does it make sense that the US has allocated $87 billion to spend on Iraq and only $35 million to help the people of South and Southeast Asia devastated by the earthquake and tsunami?” Is the US “the most generous nation in the world” as stated by President Bush or is it one of the most “stingy” countries as mentioned by Jan Egeland, the UN relief coordinator? And how have Americans and the American media reacted to one of the largest natural disasters that mankind has experienced?

Michael Saba is an Arab-American, involved in improving US-Saudi relations, whom I consider a friend. This article does a good job in noting that the American media has not noticed Saudi disaster relief efforts (the subject of the preceding post), but does a less creditable job in accurately portraying US efforts.

I think the USG made a serious blunder in its handling of the public affairs aspects of its disaster relief program. Everything it did was correct and by-the-book, but the way it announced the efforts was lacking.

When there is a local disaster, US ambassadors can call on a pot of discretionary funds–usually in the $50-100 thousand range–that can be spent immediately. In the case of the tsunami, it soon became clear that these funds would be insufficient, and the USG announced $35 million in already allocated funds (It’s a federal crime to commit funds that are not authorized by Congress, which happens to be out of session). If it is a major disaster (which usually involve only one country), US Agency for International Development (USAID) sends out Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) to assess the scope of the disaster and what types of assistance are most needed. These teams then report back to Washington on their assessment and start working with local NGOs and other groups to ensure that the aid is directed appropriately and efficiently. This is exactly what was done in the case of the tsunami. As a result of these DART assessments, the USG has pledged $350 million.

What the USG failed to do was to make this process clear from the beginning. Instead, official silence led to editorials talking about how $35 million was insufficient. Of course it was insufficient, but that was the only money that could legally be committed at that time. The full $350 million (and I’m sure the figure will go much higher) cannot be committed until Congress authorizes it.

In a “normal” disaster, these steps would go largely unnoticed, but in this instance, the need was so great that silence was taken by some journalists to mean indifference. It was not.

UPDATE: Greg Djerijian at The Belgravia Dispatch has an excellent post on this issue, including a partial transcript of Secretary of State Powell on Meet the Press.

UPDATE: The Letters to the Editor page of the Arab News has several comments from Saudi readers complaining about the imbalance of this article. They point out that if anyone is to be ashamed at the level of support given, it is Gulf Arab States. Interesting reading.

Outside the Beltway readers might be interested in this as well.


January:03:2005 - 00:13 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink
10 Responses to “Tsunami: Where US Media Failed”
  1. 1
    Dean's World Trackbacked With:
    January:03:2005 - 04:02 

    America’s Generosity
    Crossroads Arabia notes that the press has dropped the ball in reporting how much aide the nations devastated by the recent earthquake and tsunamis can expect from America. The short story is that until Congress authorizes more t…

  2. 2
    Euphemus Said:
    January:03:2005 - 07:55 

    “…silence was taken by some journalists to mean indifference…”

    I humbly disagree that such journalists as Robin Wright of the Washington Post were under this innocent impression. On the contrary, what we witnessed was a pathetic attempt by opponents of the Bush Administration to score partisan points before larger aid sums were committed. The military was already on notice and assessment teams already in theatre when she and her fellow believers over at the New York Times printed their screeds. This was obvious.

    I hope you are making clear to your friend the certainty that much more than $350 million will be committed, as well as an appreciation of the invaluable contribution (and tremendous resource outlays) involved in our military efforts there.

  3. 3
    Uncle Bill Said:
    January:03:2005 - 08:40 

    “silence was taken by some journalists to mean indifference”

    Nonsense, it was and is all about spin.

    It is actually no different in concept to this nonsense.

  4. 4
    Alec Rawls Said:
    January:03:2005 - 09:20 

    Glad to have the clarification, but who didn’t already understand this? One does not need to know the details of the funding processes to know that initial allocations of aid will be a function of immediately available funds and immediate spending opportunities. The mainstream media CHOSE from the outset to misrepresent the immediately available aid as an expression of American stinginess. Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle did the same thing with the increase in aid, putting its spin right in its page one headline: “Stung by charges of being tightfisted and slow to respond, Bush makes tenfold increase in pledged amount.”

    Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? America doesn’t give aid because it is generous, but because it doesn’t want to be SEEN as stingy! When I read that headline, I smashed my fist down so hard on reporter Zachary Coile’s name that my kitchen table bounced off the floor. Its is bad enough that the European press is monopolized by America haters. Does our own press have to be monopolized by America haters too?

    For more on the problem, and what it will take to fix it, click on my link.

  5. 5
    Pat Rand Said:
    January:03:2005 - 10:07 

    John, what the US press has gotten wrong is its role in a free society. Instead of reporting the news, the ‘dreaded-mainstream-media’ saw this as an opportunity to fulfill what it has come to belive is its primary function: bringing about the destruction George W. Bush. The fact that the US had cargo planes in the air loaded to the gills with water purification systems, medicine, food…before the first images of the disaster reached the airwaves was unimportant. The fact that to this day the UN efforts are entirely impotent while the US and Austrailians are getting their aid through is ignored. No, it’s much more important to portray the man G.W. Bush as uncaring for daring to spend the Christmas Holiday at home with his family. The hubris of the US media is intact.

  6. 6
    John Said:
    January:03:2005 - 10:13 

    Johnd01: I really don’t know why only four. It could be that the KSA already has aid programs in those countries and is boosting the aid through existing channels. It could be that it doesn’t have aid in those countries and is thus creating new programs. It could be that these are deemed by the Saudis to be the most seriously devastated countries, most in need of assistance. I’ll see what I can find out.

  7. 7
    John Said:
    January:03:2005 - 12:46 

    I was giving the benefit of the doubt to the media. I try not to make assertions that I can’t back up. I know Robin Wright’s reporting and it’s generally sound. I don’t know John Lynch (the co-writer of the Dec. 29 Washington Post article that first lit this bonfire.

    While I can certainly see a case for claiming bad faith on the part of the media, I can’t support that just yet.

  8. 8
    Howard Veit Said:
    January:03:2005 - 14:01 

    The media hasn’t failed. They are “reporting” exactly what they have chosen to report. Anything to make Bush look bad is news, anything else is NOT news.

  9. 9
    praktike Said:
    January:04:2005 - 01:13 

    “Anything to make Bush look bad is news, anything else is NOT news.”

    This is clearly false … any number of stories on any given day do not make Bush look bad. I can point you to some if you like … in any case, as a government you have to deal with the media you have, not the propaganda machine you wish to have.

  10. 10
    Ipse Dixit Trackbacked With:
    January:05:2005 - 17:09 

    Annan Absent, Bush Blamed
    U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on why he stayed on his Jackson Hole, Wyoming ski vacation for three days after…

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