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Monday, October 10, 2005


It seems that much of the violence and mayhem reported during and just after hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans was they product of exaggeration and hysteria. The news media got huge kudos for reporting on the tragedy with concern and emotion. Apparently, if it improves their image [and, ahem, ratings] they can table their lofty "objectivity," so often pompously thrown in the face of their critics.

It may have made for good ratings to see Anderson Cooper dress-down a United States Senator, and Shepard Smith bitch slap his own network colleagues, but did such exercises really serve any good purpose for the victims and the nation as a whole? I know what they say about hindsight, 20/20 and all that, but wouldn't the victims and the nation have been better served by simple, factual, on the scene reporting? I'm not saying that the personal stories of tragedy and triumph shouldn't be told, but that's more of a job for Oprah and the Lifetime channel. In John Leo's October 10th column at Townhall.com, he gives a few examples of the rumors that became "fact" as reported and are now quickly moving into the realm of urban legend.
Thanks to a long report in the new Orleans Times-Picayune, we now know that most of the incredible tales of savagery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were simply made up by panicky residents and passed along by the media.

On September 2, a CNN report cited an unidentified police officer who said he saw bodies riddled with bullet holes and one man with the top of his head completely shot off. Another unnamed officer, a sergeant, said he had to pass by the bodies of other police officers who had drowned doing their job. So far as we know, none of this was true.

A lot more of this circulated though the media. The Ottawa Sun reported that "a man seeking help was gunned down by a National Guard soldier" and a man was "run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer." Editor & Publisher interviewed a reporter, back from Iraq, who said New Orleans was almost as dangerous as the Middle East. The New York Times reported: "Like passengers on a doomed ship, they [Superdome evacuees] were desperate to get out of the noxious, violence-ridden stadium." Noxious it was, but the "violence-ridden" condition is harder to pin down. The Superdome "just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard told the Los Angeles Times. "What I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts of people helping people." Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told the Washington Post that reporters got bogged down trying to tell people how bad things were rather than "gathering facts and corroborating that information."

Post-hysteria reporting has not been kind to the general media coverage of the crisis. the state Department of Health and Hospitals counted 10 dead at the Superdome and four at the convention center. Only two of those are believed to have been murdered. (The city averages five or six homicides a week even without hurricanes.) Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, who did so much to inflame the panic, said on September 28 that there is "not one official report of rape or sexual assault." Though rape is notoriously underreported, his sex-crimes unit investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity in the Superdome, made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.
Leo concludes his column by saying: "Personally, I don't need reporters to supply righteous indignation. I can handle that on my own. What I need is reporters who separate rumor from fact and just tell me what they know for sure actually happened."

Will reporters learn anything from the spectacle? The good ones will. I think more importantly, at least I hope so, that the public [myself included] will learn to hold their emotional reactions in check during the next major disaster, until the facts can be established. There will always be rumours and vitriolic charges during upheavels, its the job of the free press to sort through that mess and find the truth, not to act as the world's largest gossip distribution network.


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