Monday, November 28, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and the media (old and new)

At Reason, Matt Welch spanks the media for spreading hysterical rumors about the chaos in New Orleans after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina. Armed thugs shooting at rescue helicopters, rampant gang violence, murder and rape inside the Superdome and the Convention Center where people took refuge from the flood -- respected news organization took these stories and ran with them. (All these stories turned out to be untrue; it should be added that Matt questioned them from the start.) As a result, the rescue effort was hampered, and the residents of New Orleans were unfairly maligned; one might add, too, that the reckless news coverage became fodder for America-bashing around the world. This was a Media Hall of Shame moment, no doubt about it.

However, those who like to pit "citizen journalists" against the "MSM" shouldn't get too smug. The blogs did their share of reckless rumor-mongering. The worst instance, perhaps, was this account by Lisa C. Moore of her aunt Denise Moore's alleged experiences at the Convention Center, posted at Daily Kos on September 6 under the headline "What Really Happened in New Orleans" (and widely picked up by other blogs). ch2, who posted it at Daily Kos, gravely noted, "The accounts rang true to me, and I'm a professional skeptic (a scientist)." Well, I don't know what kind of science "ch2" does, but my B.S. detector went off the moment I read the Lisa's claim that "the first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her ["her" being the aunt]. the second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her." If every person inside the Convention Center saw ten people die next to them in two days, the place would have emptied out pretty soon. (Of course, we now know that there were a total of 10 deaths inside both buildings.) The claim that "yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all" reeked of B.S. as well, though probably not to the Daily Kos crowd.

(Interestingly, the only place where I saw the "Denise Moore" story questioned skeptically was in this thread at Reason's Hit & Run blog, where it was posted by a reader.)

So, what's the verdict? None of the media, old or new, covered themselves in glory during the Katrina disaster. Except my colleagues at Reason, of course.

Update: My own Reason column on the Katrina response can now be found here.


thecobrasnose said...

I was in Greece when the levies broke and my primary source of US news was CNN International. That channel broadcast non-stop calamity--much of which turned out to be bogus. There was nearly nothing about other towns devastated by Katrina, and nearly nothing about white survivors. Just hour after hour of how the cruel, racist United States had been brought to its knees by a storm, and what a black eye it was for its cowboy president. Based upon that coverage, some Americans in my circle wondered aloud what it was about our country that would breed such singularly mindless violence.

A few days later when I got a reliable internet connection on Mykonos, I tuned into some reliable blogs which (because they have easily accessible histories and are authored by people with reasonable BS detectors) debunked many of the more lurid myths and provided a more complete history of the event than the closed news loop of CNN International. But the damage was done. By the time I got to England where I could read and listen to a variety of public news media, the image of the savage, stupid American who would sink to the level of shooting at rescue helicopters and rape children on one hand, and would on the other hand casually permit it because it was perpetrated by minorities upon minorities, was firmly established. The “evidence” of the Katrina aftermath was used to support a good number of theories about the barbarity of the American populace and its politics.

The reckless US media was a major force in slathering disgrace upon the tragedy. No correction I have seen approaches parity with the damage they did to this country’s reputation overseas. I still wonder that there isn’t more fury with them here.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine's (white) grandmother was killed during Katrina--I believe she lived near Biloxi. However, because the media was more interested in telling the story of racial mayhem in New Orleans (and note the phrase "telling the story" as opposed to "reporting"), there was comparatively little on the news about the tragedy in her area.

The coverage from New Orleans was, (along with being *appallingly* irresponsible) sadly, utterly predictable in this era of template-driven "journalism" and mindless sensationalism passed off as news by the MSM. I think that there are some questions that could be asked about racial bias among the press corps, actually--why were they so quick to hype untrue stories of apparent chaos in a majority-African American city, while ignoring many who needed help in majority white areas? Could it be that the press corps saw black faces in a disaster zone and concluded that "those *people* are running amok?" I also haven't seen anywhere near the level of soul-searching and self-examination among the MSM press corps that their failure should have prompted--a couple "Wow, we sure screwed up on that. Oh well, on to the next!" stories and that's it. At the minimum, I would like to see a systematic and searching examination of exactly what conditions prevail in mainstream journalism that leads to this level of irresponsible sensationalism and hype, and an honest, sincere and thorough effort to reform. And, while I'm wishing for things that ain't gonna happen, I would also like to see flying pigs.

There is a reason why I get the vast majority of my news from the blogosphere these days, and Katrina is part of it. Katrina simply is illustrative of a larger trend--that the mainstream media cannot and should not be relied upon for accurate reporting, nuance, depth, detail, or anything other than soundbytes and sensationalism. At least the blogosphere is self-correcting.

L. C. Staples said...

The question this brings to my mind is: what about Michael Brown?

A large part of the criticism of Mr. Brown was his ignorance of these awful happenings, which supposedly showed that he was behind even the casual TV viewer in understanding the situation. But the things which Mr. Brown professed he didn't know about, erm, didn't happen.

Is there still a legitimate case that Mr. Brown was incompetent?

Anonymous said...

catrina is name of women??

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