W. Joseph Campbell

10 years on: News media shy from revisiting flawed Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on August 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm
NOAA_Katrina

Katrina, 10 years ago

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.”

Which was rather how Maureen Dowd characterized Katrina’s aftermath in her New York Times column, published September 3, 2005, under the headline, “United States Of Shame”:Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 3.39.57 PM

“America,” she wrote, “is once more plunged into a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning. But this time it’s happening in America.”

Far more measured and perceptive was her Times colleague, Jim Dwyer, whom Brian Thevenot quoted this way, in a searching critique of the coverage of Katrina:

“I just thought that some of the reports were so garish, so untraceable and always seemed to stop short of having actual witnesses to the atrocities … like a galloping mythical nightmare had taken control.”

The erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the important effect delaying the delivery of aid to New Orleans — and of defaming the residents of a battered city, depicting them as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

Little of the flawed coverage has been revisited or recalled in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. As they did in fifth anniversary retrospectives, journalists have mostly shied from addressing the errors in their coverage and have avoided considering how that coverage offers broader insights about reporting on disasters and other dramatic events.

The 10th anniversary reports have instead offered conflicting assessments about how New Orleans has made a comeback, or really hasn’t, or how impressions of the city’s recovery can sharply differ.

Heavily advertised television specials shown on ABC and Fox News skirted the wrong-headed reporting of 10 years ago, if they alluded to it at all.

ABC’s retrospective was broadcast Sunday night and was so sappy and boosterish as to be almost unwatchable.

Fox, which aired its look-back on Friday, was notably rough on Ray Nagin, the incompetent, bloviating mayor of New Orleans 10 years ago. Nagin since has gone to federal prison on corruption convictions unrelated to Katrina.

It’s worth recalling how in the storm’s aftermath, Nagin went on Oprah Winfrey’s program to claim that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing Katrina evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Almost all of those claims were untrue: The mayor was winging it on national television, and smearing his city in the process. The Fox program alluded to some of Nagin’s exaggerations.

An exception to the media’s sidestepping was a segment Saturday on NPR’s On the Media show. The segment noted the flawed reporting, but didn’t much explore why or how it occurred.

In her introduction, co-host Brooke Gladstone said of journalists covering the storm’s aftermath:

“They didn’t always speak fact. While covering Katrina’s horrific aftermath, the media often perpetuated myths about what was going on in the streets and the gathering places for the displaced, like the Superdome in New Orleans.”

The broad effect, of the exaggerated reporting, she said, was to paint “an apocalyptic picture that never matched reality.”

Her observations were a sequeway to an extended conversation with James A. Cobb Jr., the lawyer who won acquittals in 2007 of Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of a nursing home in suburban New Orleans where 35 old people drowned in floodwaters released by the collapsed levees.

The Manganos both were charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty.

Before the storm hit, the Manganos had decided it was safer to hunker down and not evacuate their frail and bedridden charges — and they were pilloried by the media when word of the deaths of their elderly charges began to circulate.

WJC

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‘Forbes’ essay invokes zombie-like Hearst ‘quote’: It never dies

In 1897, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 22, 2015 at 12:14 pm

The vow attributed to William Randolph Hearst that he would “furnish the war” with Spain in the late 19th century is a zombie-like bogus quote: Despite thorough and repeated debunking, it never dies.

It is, as I discussed in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Exhibit A in support of the dubious notion that Hearst  brought on the Spanish-American War.

The vow supposedly was made in a telegram to the artist, Frederic Remington, whom Hearst had sent to Cuba to draw sketches of the rebellion against Spanish colonial rule. Remington stayed just six days in January 1897 before returning to New York, where his sketches were displayed prominently in Hearst’s New York Journal.

'Maine' destroyed

‘Journal’ reports ‘Maine’ destruction

The mythical tale about the Hearstian vow and the war with Spain was offered up anew yesterday, in an essay posted at Forbes.com. It declared:

“Artist Frederick [sic] Remington was working for Hearst and the Journal was filled with his sketches of alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace, especially women and children. When events in Cuba seemed to have run their course and the Spanish had regained control Remington wrote to Hearst and asked if it was time to come home, Hearst replied, ‘Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.’ And when the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, he did just that with a stream of fictional stories of sabotage and anti-Americanism. That the explosion was actually caused by the accidental ignition of coal dust was, as far as Hearst was concerned, irrelevant. He had his war.”

There’s a lot of myth and misunderstanding to unpack there.

For starters, the “alleged Spanish atrocities committed against the Cuban populace” were quite real. The abuses stemmed from Spain’s policy of “reconcentration,” in which Cuban non-combattants were herded into garrison towns, to deprive the rebels of their support. Reconcentration led to acute hardships, privation, and the deaths of untold thousands of Cubans.

A leading historian of the Spanish-American War period, Ivan Musicant, has  written that reconcentration “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Despite the Forbes claim, Spain never “regained control” of Cuba; at best, the rebellion had settled into an uneasy stalemate by the end of 1897.

The battleship USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, 13 months after Remington’s brief visit to Cuba. Cause of the explosion that killed 266 U.S. sailors and officers remains disputed. But in March 1898, a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine most likely had been destroyed by an underwater mine. The Inquiry could not determine who set the device, however.

About a month after the Court of Inquiry issued its report, the United States and Spain went to war over Cuba.

In the run-up to war, the Journal didn’t distinguish itself with its overheated reporting about the crisis. But the newspaper’s content cannot be said to have brought on the conflict.

As I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, claims that Hearst fomented the war invariably are offered without persuasive explanation as to how the often-exaggerated content of his newspapers was transformed into U.S. policy, how newspaper reports were decisive in the decision-making the led the United States to declare war in April 1898.

The inescapable answer: Newspaper content was not decisive.

If Hearst and his newspapers had pushed the country into war, then researchers surely should be able to locate evidence of such influence in the personal papers and reminiscences of policymakers of the time.

But nothing of the like can be found in the private letters, diary entries, and diplomatic correspondence of top members of the administration of President William McKinley.

Those papers contain almost no evidence that the content of Hearst’s newspapers “penetrated the thinking of key White House officials, let alone influenced the Cuban policy of the McKinley administration,” I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies.

Which brings us back to the zombie-like vow, which, by the way, the Forbes essay mangles.

Hearst purportedly told Remington, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war” — not “Remain there. You provide the pictures, and I will provide the war.”

Creelman: Sole source

Creelman the pompous

The original source for the “furnish the war” quotation was On the Great Highway, a slim volume of reminiscences published in 1901. The author, James Creelman, was a vain, cigar-chomping journalist inclined to self-promotion, hyperbole, and pomposity.

Creelman did not explain in On the Great Highway how or where he learned about the supposed Remingt0n-Hearst exchange.

What’s more, Creelman – who was in Spain at the time Remington was in Cuba in 1897 – recounted the anecdote not as a rebuke but as a compliment to Hearst and the activist “yellow journalism” he had pioneered in New York City.

Over the decades, though, the quote has morphed into censure of Hearst and his supposedly war-mongering newspapers.

The quote lives on despite the absence of any supporting documentation: The telegrams that Remington and Hearst supposedly exchanged have never turned up, and Hearst denied having sent such a message.

Not only that, but the Spanish authorities who controlled Cuba’s incoming and outbound telegraphic traffic surely would have intercepted and called attention to such an incendiary message — had it been sent.

In addition, the timing of Remington’s assignment further undercuts the “furnish the war” tale: The timing poses an irreconcilable internal inconsistency, in that it would have been absurd for Hearst to pledge to “furnish the war” because war — specifically, the Cuban rebellion  — was the very reason he sent Remington to Cuba in the first place.

WJC

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About that Hearst quote on public’s fondness for entertainment

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Error, Furnish the war, Media myths, Newspapers, Quotes, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 20, 2015 at 6:45 am

“It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information.”

Hearst before the war

Hearst in caricature, 1896

So declared New York Journal in a lengthy editorial (see below) published November 8, 1896, at the first anniversary of William Randolph Hearst’s taking over the once-moribund daily.

During that period, the editorial claimed, the Journal made enormous circulation gains — from 77,230 to 417,821, daily, and from 54,308 to 351,751, Sunday.

“What has been done in one year,” the Journal declared, “is a promise of what will be done in the next.”

The first-anniversary editorial and its self-congratulatory tone have long been forgotten. But its claim that the public is “more fond of entertainment than it is of information” has lived on as evidence of Hearst’s supposed inclination to treat his newspapers as platforms of frivolity and exaggeration.

Such characterizations are to be found in more than a few books that address or refer to Hearstian journalism.

For example, Gerald Baldasty presented the fragment “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” as a stand-alone sentence in E.W. Scripps and the Business of Newspapers. So, too, did Louis Pizzitola in Hearst Over Hollywood. Donald A. Ritchie included the excerpt in American Journalists: Getting the Story, as did both George Sullivan in Journalists at Risk: Reporting America’s Wars and Samantha Barbas in her biography about Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.18.20 AM

The first-anniversary editorial

Michael Schudson included the full quotation in Discovering the News, and cited as his source W.A. Swanberg, who excerpted  a few passages from the Journal’s first-anniversary editorial in Citizen Hearst, a notably dreadful biography.

The first-anniversary editorial, which carried the headline “One Year’s Progress,” was unsigned; so it may not have been Hearst’s writing at all (but in that case, he surely would have approved its content before publication).

What’s more important is that the editorial was no endorsement of news-as-entertainment, no embrace of the primacy of superficial and trivial content. To describe it as such is to misrepresent and err: Hearst, or whoever wrote the editorial, was not extolling frivolity in his newspapers.

Far from it.

The editorial staked a claim to seriousness of purpose. It did not diminish the importance of news and newsgathering but rather embraced those aims, as these excerpts make clear (my additional commentary is italicized):

  • “The Journal has made it its business to reach out for news wherever it is to be had, considering neither precedent, difficulty, nor cost.” Indeed, a little-recognized hallmark of Hearst’s journalism of the mid- and late-1890s was his willingness to devote substantial sums to cover far-flung news events.
  • “When the ordinary news channels are blocked or inadequate, the Journal dispatches it own correspondents to the points, however distant, where the news is to be obtained, and even presses monarchs and statesmen into its service. And these dignitaries are often gracefully obliging.” The “dignitaries” sometimes would reply with a few sentences to the Journal’s cabled requests for comment about political or military developments abroad.
  • “The Cuban War [the rebellion that began in 1895 and gave rise to the Spanish-American War of 1898] … engaged the lively interest of the people of the United States. So the Journal sent correspondents to the island, among them Mr. Murat Halstead [then a 66-year-old eminence grise among American journalists] and General Bradley Johnson [formerly a Confederate field officer]. This paper was the first to get a reporter through the lines to the [Cuban] insurgents and give their side a hearing.” In December 1896, the Journal recruited the writer Richard Harding Davis and the artist Frederic Remington  to go to Cuba and meet up with the insurgents. The intended rendezvous never happened, but the assignment did give rise to the apocryphal tale of Hearst’s vowing to Remington that he would “furnish the war” with Spain.

The editorial’s most-quoted passage — that “the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information” — was preceded by a prideful recitation of the Journal’s enterprise during the previous 12 months. That portion of the editorial read:

“At the Czar’s coronation [in May 1896] the Journal was specially represented in Moscow by Mr. Richard Harding Davis. Mr. Julian Ralph [who reported from abroad for many years] is our resident correspondent in London. Edgar Saltus, Stephen Crane, Julian Hawthorne, Edward W. Townsend and other authors of fame act as reporters or contributors when the need arises. No other journal in the United States includes in its staff a tenth of the number of writers of reputation and talent. It is the Journal’s policy to engage brains as well as to get the news, for the public is even more fond of entertainment than it is of information. In short, during the past year we have been publishing a first-rate, all-round newspaper that has given a history of the world’s most important events each day ….”

So the context for the popular passage about the public’s fondness for entertainment is in fact an unambiguous statement about the importance of reporting the news with skill and talent.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, the editorial writer may have invoked “entertainment” not in the word’s light-hearted sense but to suggest the pleasure readers derived from the works of some of the leading authors of the late 19th century. Such an interpretation certainly offers itself, given the editorial’s context and content.

But why is any of this of importance now?

After all, the quotation isn’t as well-known, or invoked as often, as “furnish the war.” But it still resonates and still circulates — as suggested by the sneering essay published a month ago by Salon.

The essay was, as I noted then, “a strained and unpersuasive effort to liken the excesses of billionaire Donald Trump to those of the long-dead media tycoon William Randolph Hearst.” It closed with a slightly altered version of the passage from the Journal’s editorial:

“Said William Randolph Hearst: ‘The public is even more fond of entertainment than information.’ Boy, was he right.”

So the quotation has currency, serving as inaccurate shorthand for the superficial character of Hearst’s journalism. But the Journal of the mid- and late-1890s wasn’t that.

It was flamboyant and indulged heartily in self-promotion. It inspired “yellow journalism,” a sneer coined in 1897 by an embittered rival editor in New York City.

But Hearst’s journalism also was aggressive, searching, and fairly well-funded. As Hearst’s most even-handed biographer, David Nasaw, wrote in his 2000 work, The Chief:

““Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper [was] outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Nasaw was referring to the Journal of 1895-96.

In months that followed, the newspaper became even more assertive and exceptional as it staked out and pursued an activist model of participatory journalism. The “journalism of action,” the Journal called it.

As I wrote in my 2006 book, The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigmsthe “journalism of action” emphasized agency and engagement and sought to expand the norms of newsgathering.

The Journal argued that newspapers had an obligation “to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence,” as I wrote in The Year That Defined American Journalism.

The “journalism of action” did not valorize a light-hearted approach to the news. Rather, the Journal said, the “journalism of action” represented “the final state in the evolution of the modern newspaper.”

WJC

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