August 31, 2015

Ten years later – how the media covered Katrina

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

W. Joseph Campbell describes the media’s role in contributing to — and sometimes inventing — the persistent myths of what happened in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina made land-fall:

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago, based on the media reports coming out of Louisiana:

I ended up obsessively watching the CNN coverage last night after I got home from work. There was little other choice: CBC’s Newsworld feed looked like some sort of retrospective on an artist’s model I’d never heard of, and most other channels we could pick up were back to showing their regular schedule. I’d hoped that Newsworld would at least pick up the BBC World Service, but that apparently was beyond their ability (or imagination).

The contrast with the usual CNN reporting was pretty stark: the reporters were clearly on the edge of panic themselves in several cases (especially those in New Orleans proper). The scale of the disaster is only now becoming clear to those actually in the afflicted areas. CNN’s staff had been working flat-out in the lead-up to the arrival of the storm and through the wind and rain (the traditional idiotic talking heads leaning 45 degrees into the wind and saying how “hellish” it was), and then stood down to rest and recover … just as the real disaster unfolded.

It was again interesting watching the anchorperson-of-the-moment try to spin the reporting towards their own particular interests. Aaron Brown (I think that’s the guy’s name anyway) was pretty blatant in his constant questions to reporters about whether the National Guard was involved. At one point, just after a local official (possibly the Mayor of New Orleans) specifically mentioned the National Guard presence, Brown directly asked whether there was any sign of the National Guard. I’m not sure what his personal beef was, but it was clearly very, very important to him to highlight the fact that the NG wasn’t blanketing the entire state shoulder-to-shoulder.

This morning, the anchor at CNN was talking to a former mayor of New Orleans who clearly felt that the entire disaster was George Bush’s fault. In a three minute interview, he must have called for Bush to drop everything and devote his undivided attention to the disaster five or six times. I’m not sure what he thought the President could do, but he was adamant that Bush do _something_ to help. He made an issue that the President hadn’t visited the area yet, but the governor of Louisiana had stated just a couple of minutes earlier that she had asked the President not to come too soon because there was little that he could do, and few places that would be safe enough to visit.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think there’s much more that can be done, due to the peculiar geography of the New Orleans area. There are only three land routes to reach the city from elsewhere and all of them are cut by dropped bridges or worse. There’s no safe land route in or out of the city, and even the water routes are extremely dangerous: even in normal conditions, the Mississippi River is treacherous for shipping, and Lake Ponchartrain is very shallow, so most ships would be unable to enter or get close enough to the shoreline to be of much use — even if they could get into the lake. The US Marine Corps and the US Navy may have the best equipment for this, but they’re not positioned close enough to the disaster area to be of immediate assistance.

With most of the other forms of transportation blocked, the helicopter is the most valuable player in the ongoing rescue attempts, but even the Americans have a limited number of those essential machines. Any way you slice it, it’s going to be a long, painful recovery for the victims … and the death toll is going to be much worse than the original estimates. This will turn out to be one of the biggest disasters to ever hit the United States.

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