After the levees broke in New Orleans, the city appeared to descend into chaos before our eyes. Americans sat in front of their TVs, watching Katrina's flooding and hearing tales of horror. On Sept. 2, ABC's "Good Morning America" described New Orleans "as the city spirals out of control." Charles Gibson continued: "There appears to be anarchy. Reports of rapes, riots, fires, bodies in the street."
That was how much of the media depicted New Orleans – a city lost to anarchy. Only it wasn't true.
There is no doubt that Katrina was an incredible tragedy, but it was nowhere near what was reported. What is true is that the sloppy coverage of Katrina's devastation will leave its mark on the media and on America for years to come.
This past week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune led the parade of media that did their best to set the record straight about what really happened. They told a story of epic failure, but they weren't writing more stories blaming the Katrina disaster on FEMA or President Bush. These told of the failure of local officials and media who got the story wrong, giving new meaning to the term "bad news." The Sept. 25th Times-Picayune story painted a new picture: "[T]he vast majority of reported atrocities committed by refugees – mass murders, rapes and beatings – have turned out to be false..." That's not what we were told, over and over again.
For weeks, the media dumped blame on FEMA, President Bush and the rest of the federal government for conditions worthy of a war zone. In a Sept. 12 cover story, Newsweek included this ironic comment: "How the system failed is a tangled story – " Actually, it was countless tangled stories – news stories.
The very structure of news reporting contributed to the disaster because news often focuses on the unusual or outlandish. In a crisis, almost everything is unusual or outlandish. With Katrina, journalists had no way to cope with the fact that many of the people they interviewed were distraught and spouting rumors. And there is no true accountability now that those reports have been proven false. Relying on Politicians
Journalists are taught to count on elected officials for much of their information, especially the kind needed during a crisis. Thus, the media turned to Louisiana politicians and police for crime statistics, the death toll and for rational commentary to offset rumors.
But state and local officials from Louisiana's governor on down didn't stamp out the sparks of rumor – they spread them like arsonists. Democratic New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin claimed on the Sept. 5 "Today" show that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000." A month after the storm, the Louisiana death toll stands at 896.
Certainly, crimes occurred. Officials now say 14 people died between the Convention Center and the Superdome, after seemingly endless accounts claiming far worse. Only one or two of those were reportedly homicides.
Nagin and New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass took their act to the "Oprah Winfrey Show" with even more outrageous claims that remain unproven. Nagin told of evacuees trapped in the Superdome "watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." Compass, who has since resigned, went even further with his claim that "We had babies in there. Babies getting raped." No one has been able to match the tabloid TV extravaganza that Oprah put on. Oprah cried "No, no, no, no," while Compass told of the horrors that allegedly went on in the dome – horrors officials now deny.
And Oprah milked it for all it was worth, interviewing traumatized people without ever taking into account that they were exhausted, drained, angry and scared. To prey on them was bad enough. To embrace rumor was irresponsible.
Counting on journalists
Journalism is supposed to be a first draft of history. In the days that followed Katrina, the media reported it like it was the script for "Fear Factor." Given the behavior of the politicians on the scene, it's almost hard to blame the media. But they didn't just rely on officials. Journalists hit the streets, eager for a story too sensational to watch from the sidelines.
With communications and 911 out, reporters turned to second-hand or third-hand reports. The Sept. 11 broadcast of CNN's "American Morning" relied on actor James Caviezel. Caviezel, best known for his work as Jesus in the "The Passion of the Christ," told how he met an 82-year-old woman who claimed she "watched three men rape an 11-year-old girl, watched a man walk up and shoot a police officer right in the head."
Rather than question it, CNN's Miles O'Brien simply said, "What a horrific thing to endure." O'Brien joined the ranks of journalists who set aside their natural skepticism and reported almost any outlandish claim they could find. Most never reminded viewers that it takes time to sort out the truth in such a terrible disaster.
Media critics on the left and the right have skewered Katrina coverage. Liberal groups complained that racism made it easy for reporters to accept the idea of a predominantly black city turning to anarchy. Journalists, who had attacked President Bush about race only weeks before, found themselves uncomfortably coping with their own attitudes. On September 13, CNN's Soledad O'Brien took a typical media position and asked, "[W]as the administration slow to respond when pictures of mostly black people were on TV, and over days, were clearly in dire straights?" Will she now critique her own co-workers with equal vigor?
Conservative critics saw Katrina as yet another media attempt to discredit Bush and Republicans. The media didn't create the hurricane, but reporters seized the opportunity to portray the president as racist and out of touch. We know the first draft of history was rough indeed, but it's too late to change that traumatic impression. The damage to Bush's popularity has been done – with false information.
Could it happen again?
The aftermath of the hurricane hasn't just shaken our faith in government; it's shaken our faith in our nation, our politicians and our media. Worse still, it has become part of the world's myths about America. In a day when news from other nations is just a click away, millions saw the misreporting repeated endlessly. Even Britain's respected Financial Times described the "rape and the lawlessness that overwhelmed New Orleans" in its Sept. 8 issue. That will continue to undermine U.S. efforts around the globe, though the stories remain untrue.
Several major news organizations followed the Times-Picayune report last week trying to correct the record. That is impossible. The story journalists told of rape, murder, and mayhem has oozed into our culture. It will forever be another urban legend.
The media were right about a key aspect of Katrina: The system did break down. Politicians made a bad situation worse and the media's 24-7 news cycle piled rumor after rumor on top of that. The media spend every day demanding accountability from politicians, businesspeople and everyone they encounter. Now that they are having a rockslide in their own glass house, who is there to all them on it? The bigger question is: Could we have another journalistic catastrophe like this again? The unfortunate answer is, probably yes.
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