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3/7/2006 10:11:17 PM

Updated 02/24/06

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The Understatement of American Generosity
Coverage of private hurricane relief efforts pales in comparison to constant blame game on network news.

By Amy Menefee
September 7, 2005

Send this page to a friend! (click here)     Hurricane Katrina received nearly 24-hour TV coverage in the past week, from rescue tales to the horrors of flooding, crime, and people struggling to find food and water. Then demands for accountability started pouring in but so did private donations to the relief efforts. While print outlets like The Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal detailed more than $500 million given by American individuals and businesses, network news focused on pleas for giving with passing coverage of those who answered the call. And many of the companies that gave the most were also the companies the media love to hate.

     U.S. oil companies, drug companies and Wal-Mart have been among the most generous contributors to the relief effort - a fact the print media included. The Washington Post reported on September 4 that oil companies had given at least $15.5 million. Wal-Mart donated $17 million and the Walton Family Foundation another $15 million, the Associated Press reported on September 6. Drug companies have pledged more than $25 million, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

     But these contributions from companies regularly vilified in the media received little or no attention in the last week on ABC, NBC and CBS news shows. Past media reports have attacked Wal-Mart for low wages and anti-unionism and have chided drug companies for spending less than they make in profits.

     The oil companies have attracted similar coverage, especially through the summers high gas prices. NBCs Katie Couric said on the August 17 Today, As we pay through the nose, someone has to be smelling some pretty big profits. Out of those profits, however, came charitable donations to hurricane relief. The Posts September 4 report said that Exxon Mobil had pledged $7 million; ConocoPhillips and Shell Oil Co., $3 million each; Marathon Oil Corp. $1.5 million; and the BP Foundation, $1 million.

     Shell Oil Co.s pledge, as well as Wal-Marts, was mentioned on NBCs Dateline September 1. But after Stone Phillips briefly cited those donations, he moved on to interviews with celebrities who were going to star in NBCs own fundraising telethon. Said reporter Chris Hansen: The concert here at NBC studios is part of a massive outpouring of individual and corporate support for Katrina's victims.

     ABCs America Reaches Out series of broadcasts encouraged private donations, giving advice about how to give and ways to help. However, these stories didnt scratch the surface of what was already going on. On the September 1 Good Morning America, Barbara Pinto made a passing reference to major corporations that have donated millions, but she didnt tell viewers much more about the vast relief efforts under way.

     The September 1 broadcast of ABCs Primetime Live focused on a familiar refrain coming from network coverage: growing cries of frustration and anger at the federal government. In the middle of the story, Elizabeth Vargas said, No one can argue, however, with the donations from corporations and private individuals; $93 million have been donated in the three days since the hurricane hit here. You compare that to the money raised after the tsunami, $30 million raised in three days after the tsunami. Immediately following that mention, she resumed the main line of questioning, asking Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, What is your reaction to how the Federal government has responded?

     ABC did pay attention to Waffle Houses donations in a September 6 Good Morning America segment. Mike Von Fremd showed how the company had responded to the disaster, bringing in generators and food and providing paychecks for displaced employees. The story included a brief allusion to J.C. Penneys and Wal-Marts efforts to help affected workers.

     Newspapers, meanwhile, gave more extensive coverage of business donations. Rather than simply citing total figures or alluding to private help, as the networks often did, print reporters filled in a bit more of the picture of American giving.

     USA Todays Edward Iwata on September 1 reported on businesses quick response to the disaster, including the big news that the rate of giving dwarfs contributions to other hurricanes. USA Today ran another story the same day about home supply workers like Home Depot and building contractors and their preparations for helping after the storm. A Wall Street Journal news roundup from September 1 named more companies and reported specific amounts of pledges as well as donations of supplies.

     The Washington Posts Jeffrey H. Birnbaum expanded the coverage with a September 4 article entitled Stepping Up: Corporate Efforts for the Stricken Gulf Are Unprecedented. That report extensively covered companies efforts and donations, explaining how businesses were working with charity organizations to meet peoples needs. Birnbaum noted all kinds of companies, from toymakers to textile manufacturers, wireless service providers, and oil companies. Still, his account of U.S. drug companies giving didnt approach the total pledged. He mentioned more than $4 million in donations, but companies pledges have totaled more than $25 million, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Other companies donations:

General Electric Co.: $6 million
Coca-Cola Co.: $5 million
Citigroup: $3 million
J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.: up to $3 million
Merrill Lynch: $1.5 million
Toyota: $1 million
Amerada Hess Corp.: $1 million
Capital One Financial Corp.: $1 million
State Farm Insurance: $1 million
Office Depot: $1 million

(Sources: Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post)


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