Five years ago this month, a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and left much of New Orleans under water, former CBS anchorman Dan Rather went on Larry King Live to extol television’s coverage of the deadly storm.
Rather, whose early career had been propelled by covering hurricanes, was extravagant in his praise, saying the Katrina coverage was “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.”
The coverage, Rather declared, was nothing short of “landmark.”
Rather’s comments also helped give rise to what I call the “myth of superlative reporting”–the notion that coverage of Katrina represented a memorable occasion of the new media’s finding their voice, of standing up to public officials and holding them accountable for an inept and muddled response, especially in New Orleans.
But the notion the reporting was superlative is inexact and misleading. Katrina’s aftermath, as I write in Getting It Wrong, “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.”
Five years on, it’s instructive to recall how extreme and over the top the reporting was from New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath; it’s revealing to revisit what journalists said and wrote.
On CNN five years ago today, Paula Zahn spoke about “very discouraging reports out of New Orleans” about “bands of rapists going from block to block, people walking around in feces, dead bodies floating everywhere. And we know that sniper fire continues.”
She also said:
“We are getting reports that describe it as a nightmare of crime, human waste, rotten food, dead bodies everywhere. Other reports say sniper fire is hampering efforts to get people out.”
Also that day, John Burnett of National Public Radio said on the All Things Considered show: “We understand that there was a 10-year-old girl who was raped in the [New Orleans] Convention Center in the last two nights. People are absolutely desperate there. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The Associated Press news service reported on September 1, 2005, that New Orleans had “descended into anarchy” as “corpses lay abandoned in street medians, fights and fires broke out, cops turned in their badges and the governor declared war on looters who have made the city a menacing landscape of disorder and fear.”
In her column published September 3, 2005, in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd referred to New Orleans as “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.”
International news organizations, I note in Getting It Wrong, were quite “keen to report the horror stories from New Orleans, as if the hurricane had exposed pathologies in American society that otherwise would remain obscure.”
The British press landed with notable eagerness on the Katrina-unleashed-mayhem narrative.
The Sunday Observer of London reported on September 4, 2005, that New Orleans had become “a city … subsumed beneath waves of violence, rape and death.”
And a columnist for London’s Independent newspaper offered a colorful and highly imaginative account that was published five years ago today:
“Reports from New Orleans ring like prophecies of the apocalypse. Corpses float hopelessly in what used to be a thriving and distinctive downtown; coffins rise from the ground; alligators, sharks and snakes ply the poisonous waters ….”
Few if any of the nightmarish accounts of violence, anarchy, and mayhem proved true.
No shots were fired at rescue helicopters. There were no known child rape victims, no bodies stacked like cordwood, no “bands of rapists going from block to block,” no sharks plying the flood waters.
As I write in Getting It Wrong, “the erroneous and exaggerated 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.”
The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was no “quintessential” great moment in journalism.
Far from it.
As a bipartisan congressional report on Katrina noted in 2006:
“If anyone rioted, it was the media.”
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