The first thing we do is, we ban all the pictures

Don’t look now:

The U.S. government agency leading the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina said on Tuesday it does not want the news media to take photographs of the dead as they are recovered from the flooded New Orleans area.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, heavily criticized for its slow response to the devastation caused by the hurricane, rejected requests from journalists to accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims.

An agency spokeswoman said space was needed on the rescue boats and that “the recovery of the victims is being treated with dignity and the utmost respect.”

“We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media,” the spokeswoman said in an e-mailed response to a Reuters inquiry.

You know, we’ve had this line up at at the top of the blog for a while: Proud members of the reality-based community. It’s a reference to a statement made by a Bush administration official that they create their own reality by their actions.

And it’s been a joke for a while, their reality and ours, the world they create and the world that is. But it’s not all that funny, really, because we’re seeing the results of that determined refusal to live in any world but the one in their heads, we’re seeing the results of that in NOLA.

Reality came crashing down on the Bush administration last week, reality they couldn’t hide behind some bunting or shove behind a backdrop. Not that they’re not trying, now. Now that it appears reality has never been kind to these people, and finally, finally, some people are starting to wake up and realize that.

And I suppose, as a former journalist, there’s a story I’d like to tell, in the hopes that it might dissuade any reporter or photographer who’s seriously thinking about complying with these orders from doing so.

In the summer of 1999 I was working for a great newspaper in a small town northwest of Chicago. The town had a rich history and a difficult present; its gang problem was raging out of control after several years of peace and quiet. Every weekend, it seemed, somebody was getting shot, or shot at, every weekend there were arrests, bloodshed, problems.

We covered the story with front-page articles and photographs (some of them grisly) and with editorials urging action on the part of the city leadership. And the city leadership howled, said we were giving them a bad name, said the city had an “image problem.” Calls poured in from readers: they didn’t want to see dead bodies in their paper, they didn’t want to read about violence over their morning coffee, they didn’t want to look at the paper anymore, they were cancelling subscriptions.

And I’ll never forget the response of our editorial page editor. I’ll never forget the editorial she wrote, one of the most magnificently righteous things I’ve ever read. It’s guided my responses to criticism of honest journalism since the day I read her words, and I hunted it down today because it seemed so perfect:

One would like to hope a trio of corpses and a shotgun assault just a block from a festival might prompt a blunt civic response that would tell law-abiding residents the gang violence will be short-lived.

Such had not been the case since Burnham Schoolhouse exploded in gunfire a week ago or since a broken-down car meant a near death sentence on Michigan Street, a block away from the Grand Victoria casino.

There have been “planning sessions,” but “not enough time” at a council meeting to discuss the triple homicide.

There will be a public meeting tonight at which city officials will “share perspectives” on the violence. Oh, and there has been plenty of angst over how to fix the city’s image problem and more than a few complaints about this newspaper making too much of the violence.

We disagree.

Elgin doesn’t have an image problem and it doesn’t have a newspaper problem.

What it has is a corpse problem.

Reduce the number of corpses and stop the bloodshed outside our front doors and those image and newspaper problems will disappear.

The day that such carnage does not appear on the front page is the day this city has lost its long-running fight and we declare the gangs the winners.

Emphasis in the original, from here. It’s behind the paid archive wall, but do a search and it’s there.

Some things are real, whether you want them to be or not. And the problem then is the fact in front of you, not whether you feel good looking at it. It’s there. You look. And you don’t get mad at the person who took the photo, or the paper that printed it. You get mad about the dead guy on the sidewalk, and the man who killed him, and all the societal and operational circumstances that put them both there.

At its purest, reporting is a very simple job. You go someplace, you look around, you write down everything you see. You write down what people tell you, and then you tell everybody else. The rest of it is setting the level of your detector for bullshit artistry and learning to read upside down.

And if you make a mistake you admit to it and apologize, run a correction. But if somebody’s full of shit, if they’re just pointing out how much they hate being made to face an inconvenient fact, then you give them no quarter. You expose their whining and cowardice for what it is, and you keep doing your job, because their criticism has nothing to do with you.

The Bush administration has shown us time and time again that they can criticize reality, that they can shame reporters into ignoring facts that don’t fit their narrative, that they can make many things seem as though they’re not happening. To paraphrase the great Aaron Sorkin, Bush is not in the least bit interested in solving your problem. He’s interested in making you afraid of it, and telling you who’d to blame for making you aware of it.

They got away with it before, because the cameras were far away, because most of the victims were people we didn’t like anyway, because those reporters doing their jobs weren’t getting the kind of exposure the hacks and pundits were.

But the city of New Orleans doesn’t have a media problem and it doesn’t have a blame-game problem. It has a corpse problem.

And banishing the photos won’t make the stench go away.

A.