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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- Katrina and the myth of superlative reporting
- Give the press D-minus on post-Katrina coverage
- Mainstream media ‘fractured’ covering Katrina
- Absent in looking back: Katrina’s lessons for the press
- NBC’s Katrina retrospective sidesteps media failings
- No, really: Ray Nagin sought out for advice on hurricane prep
- Media myths, the comfort food of journalism
- Why they get it wrong
- The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic
- ‘Good narrative trumps good history’
- ‘A debunker’s work is never done’
- ‘Getting It Wrong’ goes on Q-and-A