CBSNews.com Clarifies Levees Story

Last Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that, "In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans' Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage." (italics ours.)

Then around 5:45 PM on Friday, the AP issued a "clarification" of its original report:

In a March 1 story, The Associated Press reported that federal disaster officials warned President George W. Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees in New Orleans, citing confidential video footage of an Aug. 28 briefing among U.S. officials.

The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach a hole developing in a levee rather than an overrun. The story should have made clear that Bush was warned about flood waters overrunning the levees, rather than the levees breaking.

The day before the storm hit, Bush was told there were grave concerns that the levees could be overrun. It wasn't until the next morning, as the storm was hitting, that Michael Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Bush had inquired about reports of breaches. Bush did not participate in that briefing. (italics ours.)

CBSNews.com's story about the video footage was a combination of AP and CBS News content, and it used the same first sentence as the original AP story excerpted above. As of this morning, the CBSNews.com story had not been changed or amended. (Interestingly, the AP has not changed or amended its original story despite the clarification.) I asked Mike Sims, CBSNews.com director of news and operations, if CBSNews.com had any plans to address the issue.

"We were not aware of the clarification," Sims said. Now that CBSNews.com is aware of it, he said, "the clarification will be noted in the archived story on the site," most likely in an editor's note at the bottom of the page. (Note: This was done around 11:00 AM.)

Powerline and other conservative blogs posted criticisms of the original AP story within hours of its release, and they have called the AP's original story, as well as the subsequent late Friday clarification, an "utterly pathetic" performance. As CBSNews.com both adopted the AP's controversial language and waited until today to address its clarification, one can assume their criticisms extends to CBSNews.com as well.

Also last Wednesday, CBS News' Bob Orr discussed the video footage on the "Evening News." Orr said that the tapes "do clearly show that top officials of the Bush administration and the president himself were fully briefed about the devastating potential of Katrina and the dire possibility that the levees may fail."

Whether or not you find Orr's characterization objectionable depends on what you think it means for the levees to "fail." If a failure of the levees occurs when water goes over the levee walls – what's known as the levees being "topped" – than Orr is being fair when he says the president and other officials were warned of such a possibility. But if one takes failure to mean a breach, not simply topping, than you could argue Orr mischaracterized the nature of the video. (For the record, I would side with Orr on this – I think if a levee is topped, it has effectively failed in its purpose.)