By: DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer
(AP) Challenged in court by CNN, the Bush administration agreed on Saturday not to prevent the news media from following the effort to recover the bodies of Hurricane Katrina victims.
The government won’t, however, permit photographers to join them 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 Friday, 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 Saturday before U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison, Army Lt. Col. Christian DeGraff promised that recovery teams would not bar the media 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 has 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 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 members on Saturday. 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, the 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 Walton said he didn’t think the “zero access” plans in New Orleans had anything to do with politics.