W. Joseph Campbell

Give the press ‘D-minus’ on post-Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 26, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Harry Shearer, director of The Big Uneasy, a new film about why levees failed in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught, offered a searing critique the other night about the news media and their coverage of the deadly storm.

Shearer was quoted by AOL’s DailyFinance site as saying the New York Times “did okay” in its post-Katrina coverage five years ago.

“I think the rest of the press gets a D, and probably a D-minus for their efforts at patting themselves on the back about how well they did speaking truth to power,” Shearer said in an interview Tuesday night with Jeff Bercovici, the media columnist for DailyFinance.

Shearer cited the encounter September 1, 2005, between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.

Cooper on that occasion snapped at Landrieu, telling her: “And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.”

Shearer said of Cooper’s tongue-lashing the senator: “Like that’s the person you need to lecture.”

Shearer was further quoted as saying: “It was grandstanding and showboating in place of telling a story–partly because they left. They left. Water leaves, story over” in post-Katrina New Orleans.

He noted that the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina-related coverageTimes-Picayune reporters “couldn’t leave,” Shearer said. “They lived there. They had to stay.”

So, a “D” or “D-minus” overall for post-Katrina coverage? Harsh grades, those.

But certainly not undeserved.

News reporting in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s landfall represented “no high, heroic aftermath in American journalism,” I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book debunking 10 prominent media-driven myths–among them the myth of superlative reporting in Katrina’s aftermath.

“The coverage,” I write, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

I further write:

“They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

“They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They 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.”

In the end, none of those reports was verified or substantiated, I note.

I point out in Getting It Wrong that no single news organization committed all those errors. And not all those lapses were committed at the same time, although they were largely concentrated during the first days of September 2005.

In any case, I write, the erroneous and over-the-top reporting “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.”

Estimates of Katrina’s death toll in New Orleans also were wildly exaggerated.

U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said on September 2, 2005, that fatalities in the state could reach 10,000 or more.

Vitter described his estimate as “only a guess,” but it was nonetheless taken up by the then-New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and reported widely.

In all, the death toll in Louisiana from Katrina was around 1,500.

About the inaccurate estimates of fatalities, the Times of London said it had become clear by in mid-September 2005 “that 10,000 people could have died only if more than 90 per cent of them had locked themselves into their homes, chained themselves to heavy furniture and chosen to drown instead of going upstairs as the waters rose.”

But the Times rationalized the flawed reporting, suggesting that it was inevitable: When “nature and the 24-hour news industry collide, hyperbole results.”

A weak excuse, that. Besides, post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans was more than hyperbolic: It described apocalyptic horrors that the hurricane supposedly unleashed.

“D-minus” is none too generous.

WJC

Related:

H/T Jim Romenesko

Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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