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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."

Of course it didn't take long for the media to praise itself for the wonderful job it had done. NYU professor Jay Rosen collected the self-congratulatory links at his PressThink blog, in a September 9 post titled "From Deference to Outrage: Katrina and the Press."

I began to air my misgivings about the coverage and its associated hysteria on September 10. But now even the mainstream media is figuring out that its performance in New Orleans was a disgrace, an emotion-binging joyride fueled by urban myth, rumor, and a deep desire to injure the Bush administration.

THE SEPTEMBER 27 Los Angeles Times and September 26 New Orleans Times-Picayune both carry stories on the collapse of mainstream media objectivity and standards that followed the breach in the New Orleans levees. The Times-Picayune piece, "Reports of anarchy at Superdome overstated," is co-authored by Brian Thevenot, who brought us the first report of the throat-slashed little girl in the convention center freezer with 39 other bodies, now reported "That the nation's front-line emergency management believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent."

The Los Angeles Times story, "Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy," flatly declares that "a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports," and "[h]yperbolic reporting spread through much of the media." At this point there is no disputing that media hysteria overwhelmed most of the mainstream media's talking heads and even their old school newspaper reporters and editors. The only question is whether the mainstream media will admit that it suffered another pratfall in full public view.

DON'T COUNT ON IT. Discussing the meltdown on MSNBC on September 27, reporter Heath Allen defended the hysterical reporting, arguing that, "[I]t's the responsibility of the photojournalist to capture that and put it on television because those people at that point needed help no matter what was true, what was false, what was exaggerated."

Thus is established the "fake but necessary" corollary to the Rathergate doctrine of "fake but true."

Speaking of Rather, in a televised event on Monday night, Dan Rather, took questions from his would-be video Boswell, Marvin Kalb, on the state of the modern media. One listener to my radio show, upon hearing the clips, thought the conversation must have been something like the chat between a T-Rex and Triceratops on the asteroid they saw fall from the sky. Whatever one makes of Rather's combination of condescension, incoherence, and platitude overload, you have to love his remarks on Katrina and the press. Kalb asks Rather why Rather became the focus of the forged documents story. Rather responded:

Well, I don't find that unusual, that the media focus should come down to the on-air reporter. But there's so much in that question, Marvin, and I don't want to bog us down. I want to be directly responsive to it. But before I go to that, I need to return to something before I forget it, and before the trail goes cold, on your saying well, why is it that every poll shows that reporters are not held in the kind of esteem that we once were. I think by and large, that we are responsible for that. And I do not exclude myself from that criticism. There are a lot of other factors going into Spiro Agnew's speeches, politicians, and all the other thing. But I'm a great believer in the ten magic words, which are if it is to be, it is up to me. And that . . . you have to have personal responsibility. Then, besides that, you have to have professional and craft responsibility. The public, when journalism is at or near its best, when journalism is doing what American journalism has made its reputation doing, when we are true to ourselves, the public responds. And they respond in a positive way. You need look no further than what happened with Katrina the hurricane.

Indeed.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of Blog: Understanding the Information Reformation That is Changing Your World. His daily blog can be found at HughHewitt.com.