W. Joseph Campbell

NBC’s Katrina retrospective sidesteps media failings

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

I watched this evening’s NBC Dateline retrospective  about Hurricane Katrina, and couldn’t help but wonder: What’s the point?

The hour-long program lacked a news peg, other than it aired in the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the storm’s landfall on the Gulf Coast.

Recollections of NBC anchorman Brian Williams, who covered Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans, were the centerpiece of the show, which went strong on the images of suffering throngs of people at the New Orleans Superdome and the Convention Center in the days following the hurricane.

But beyond vague references to government incompetence, there was little explanation as to why the suffering there was so intense. Without analysis, such images seemed gratuitous, and voyeuristic.

New Orleans, post-Katrina

In his recollections, which were recorded in 2005, Williams veered close to embracing what I call the myth of superlative reporting–the notion that news coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was little short of heroic, that journalists stood tall in telling truth to power.

“People say, on this crisis, the media found their voice,” Williams said on Dateline, adding, “We owed it to these people [suffering in New Orleans] to ride herd of these officials.”

I write about the myth of superlative reporting in my new book, Getting It Wrong, and note:

“Journalists did confront incompetent government officials who seemed to dither in the face of the disaster. Journalists did let their emotions show. Many of them took great risks in New Orleans to report a demanding, multidimensional story in a city that was 80 percent under water. Some journalists there went days without much of a break, sleeping little and toiling amid despairing conditions.”

But I also write that “Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

The Dateline show addressed none of that–none of the exaggerated descriptions of Mad Max-like violence and mayhem that many news reports said gripped post-Katrina New Orleans.

The exaggerated reporting, I write, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror.” And little of it was true.

I also write in Getting It Wrong that reports of “nightmarish violence and wanton criminality in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall … defamed a battered city and impugned its residents at a time of their deep despair.”

Moreover, the over-the-top reporting “had the very real and serious effects,” I write, “of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center.”

I cite in Getting It Wrong a 600-page report about Katrina’s aftermath, prepared by a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives. The report, titled “Failure of Initiative,” stated that  “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted, it was the media.”

The House report also declared:

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false. And that’s too bad because this storm needed no exaggeration.”

I suspect in the days ahead, as the news media indulge in “anniversary journalism” about Hurricane Katrina, that we’ll read and hear little about their failings five years ago in covering the deadly storm.

WJC

Related:

Many thanks to Jim Romenesko for linking to this post

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