How Bad Was Media's Reporting on Katrina?

Last week, I wrote about the racism of the liberal media’s Katrina coverage — but that’s only half the story. As I’ve been assessing press accounts of what was clearly the story of the year for 2005, it’s become clear that press hysteria delayed rescues, prodded some politicians into making mega-billion dollar promises and may have created a long-term backlash.

How bad was the reporting? You probably saw and heard stories of mayhem at the Superdome and the Convention Center, and on the streets of New Orleans. You may have missed the admissions weeks later by NBC, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times that, as the Baltimore Sun noted, stories about “murders, rapes and beatings have turned out to be false.”

“Hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people” inside the Dome — never happened. “Thirty or 40 bodies” stored in a Convention Center freezer — not one. Rampaging “armed mobs” — none. “Bands of rapists, going block to block” — never happened. Geraldo Rivera‘s “scene of terror, chaos, confusion, anarchy, violence, rapes, murders, dead babies” — well, that’s Geraldo Rivera.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said four murders occurred in the entire city during the week after Katrina hit, making it a typical week in a city averaging 200 homicides per year. Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, a Superdome patroller, described press reports as “99 percent (expletive).” The Superdome had one shooting: a Louisiana National Guardsman accidentally shot himself in the leg. New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard said he had seen only seven gunshot victims during hurricane week: “Seven gunshots isn’t even a good Saturday night in New Orleans.”

Why the hype? Official sources like the mayor and the police chief were hysterical, and some reporters merely became megaphones for them. Crying and yelling made for better ratings than calm assessments of damage. Network stars wanted to display what passed as compassion. Since few reporters knew what was happening, a pack mentality kicked in, as reporters congregated in places of safety.

Politics also played a role, with liberals framing the story as one of rich people not caring about poor people and whites not caring about blacks.

But media exaggeration was not a victimless crime. It delayed the arrival of responders who, relying on press reports, had to plan their missions as military rather than philanthropic endeavors. New Orleans police stopped their search-and-rescue operations and turned their attention to the imagined mobs of rapists. Two patients apparently died while waiting for evacuation helicopters grounded for a day by false reports of sniper fire. Buses were slow to get to the worst place, the Convention Center.

Bush-bashing, of course, came to the fore, with the typical mainstream media view voiced well by former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines: “The churchgoing cultural populism of George Bush” means that “the poor drown in their attics.” MSNBC, ABC, NPR and Newsweek journalists were among the multitude using calamity as an opportunity to campaign overtly for higher taxes and bigger government.

And yet, as the truth about the hyping of disaster trickled out during the fall, the momentum desired by the left disappeared and a backlash emerged. “We’ve had a stunning reversal,” complained Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group in Washington. But whose fault was that?

There’s precedent here: Propaganda about German atrocities in Belgium fueled sentiment for the United States to become involved in World War I, but when the truth came out Americans felt bamboozled and moved toward the isolationism that allowed for the rise of Hitler. British and French populaces also distrusted what seemed in the 1930s to be more scare stories about the Germans — the larger effect of World War I propaganda may have been to bring about World War II.

The long-term effect of Katrina propaganda will probably be more cynicism. Reporters who lie or exaggerate create grinches.