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Reporting Katrina

Why so many journalists painted an exaggerated picture of the situation in New Orleans.

12:00 AM, Sep 29, 2005 • By HUGH HEWITT
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ON TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a report from staff writer Brian Thevenot that began this way:

Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks stepped through the food service entrance of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Monday, flipped on the light at the end of his machine gun, and started pointing out bodies.

"Don't step in that blood--it's contaminated," he said. "That one with his arm sticking up in the air, he's an old man." Then he shined the light on the smaller human figure under the white sheet next to the elderly man.

"That's a kid," he said. "There's another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut."

He moved on, walking quickly through the darkness, pulling his camouflage shirt to his face to screen out the overwhelming odor. "There's an old woman," he said, pointing to a wheelchair covered by a sheet. "I escorted her in myself. And that old man got bludgeoned to death," he said of the body lying on the floor next to the wheelchair.

Brooks and several other Guardsmen said they had seen between 30 and 40 more bodies in the Convention Center's freezer. "It's not on, but at least you can shut the door," said fellow Guardsman Phillip Thompson."

Four days earlier, MSNBC anchor Alison Stewart had interviewed NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado on air concerning conditions at the Convention Center. Here's part of that exchange:

STEWART: Are you telling me there is no police in the area, no National Guard in the area?

ZUMBADO: I don't want to sound negative against anybody or any official, but according to them, and what they saw, they left and they're there on their own. There's no police there's no authority. . . . You would never ever imagine what you saw in the convention center in New Orleans.

STEWART: Tell me about the sanitation.

ZUMBADO: The sanitation was unbelievable. The stench in there . . . was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the convention center, laying in the middle of the street in their dying chairs. . . . They were just covered up . . . Babies, two babies dehydrated and died. I'm telling you, I couldn't take it.

On September 9, the New York Times carried an account of a briefing by New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass on conditions at both the Convention Center and the Superdome:

While he acknowledged that murders and rapes had occurred at both the convention center and the Superdome, Mr. Compass said the mayhem at the unlighted convention center would have been worse if the police had not created a plan to capture the armed thugs who were terrorizing others. Because his officers could not risk harming innocent evacuees by returning fire in the dark, he said, they watched instead for muzzle fire and moved toward it, patting people down and yelling "gun" when they felt a weapon. Then officers converged and tackled the gunman.

On the same day, the Santa Fe New Mexican carried a typical report of chaos within the Superdome: "The Dome turned into a den of depravity at some point," EMT Greg Hesch told the paper, which added that Hesch was "noting reports of rapes and people beaten to death." A full week earlier, on September 2, a Detroit News headline blared "New Orleans thugs rape, loot and shoot."

Journalists knew the score. NBC's Campbell Brown told the St. Petersburg Times that "[a] lot of people died, I believe unnecessarily. And there has to be some accountability." Tim Rosensteil of the Project for Excellence in Journalism declared that "you had street reporting suggesting that the official, whitewashed version of some things were untrue. And that changed the tone of coverage." Brian Williams gave some perspective: "I will say, it was awfully hard. I've been to some pretty lousy places in my life--Iraq over the past twelve months, and Banda Aceh--open graves and bodies. These were Americans."