Don?t get stuck on stupid, media

Why did a credulous American media believe the grim fairy tales of murder, rape and pillage in New Orleans even though there was precious little evidence for them?
Michael Cook | Oct 15 2005 | comment  

Oprah Winfrey talks to Mayor Ray Nagin As residents of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans straggled back into their filthy and chaotic neighbourhood this week, the media came, too. Paul Murphy, a 22-year-old restaurant cook entered his home and found the decomposing body of his grandmother. Photographers buzzed around recording his grief and disgust.

Drama is what the media is good at and in the days after Katrina flooded New Orleans, the media delivered.

As thousands of evacuated citizens huddled in the Dome and Convention Center, the world learned that Americans were terrorising other Americans: snipers were firing at rescue helicopters, hundreds of bodies were piling up in the Convention Center; women, children and babies were being raped; people were being killed for food and water; hundreds of crazed gang members with guns were controlling the city. Mayor Ray Nagin told Oprah Winfrey that his city had reverted to an “almost animalistic state”. It was a horrifying vision of the future which will be etched on the minds of observers of America.

There’s only one little problem: it wasn’t true. None of the horrifying crimes actually happened. What journalists told the world was about as real as the fantasies of the ultra-violent video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

In a long report, New Orleans’s major newspaper, the Times-Picayune, investigated most of the allegations and found them absurdly exaggerated (1) . “Everything was embellished, everything was exaggerated,” said one senior policeman. “If one guy said he saw six bodies, then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them — then that became 18.”

Here is the truth about some of the more lurid stories broadcast around the world. Most of them revolved around the chaotic and unsanitary conditions in the Superdome where 30,000 evacuees were being housed and in the Convention Center, with 10,000 to 20,000 evacuees.

Soldiers under fire in the Superdome: one National Guardsman shot himself accidentally in the leg in a scuffle. “We actively patrolled 24 hours a day, and nobody heard another shot,” said a National Guard officer.

Hundreds of bodies stacked up in the Dome: no one was murdered in the Dome. There were six confirmed deaths: four from natural causes, one overdose and one suicide.

Rampant violence: soldiers who took control of the Convention Center were welcomed by the crowd. They found no evidence or witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes or beatings. A SWAT team responded to about 10 reports of shots being fired, but no victims ever came forward. A number of suspects were aggressively frisked, but no guns were found.

Dozens of rapes: the Times-Picayune noted that rape is a “notoriously under-reported” crime, so some could have taken place. But there is no hard evidence that any happened. One man tried to sexually assault a young girl but he was turned over to police. There were no child rapes.

Looting: massive looting sprees did not happen, according to a New York Times feature (2). “The Ace Hardware store on Oak Street was supposed to have had its front wall pulled off by a forklift, but it appeared to be, like most stores and all houses, perfectly intact,” wrote Michael Lewis. “Of all the stores in town, none looked so well preserved as the bookshops. No one loots literature.”

Why was such misinformation peddled to the public?

The most obvious reason is the irresponsibility and incompetence of the city’s mayor and police chief, officials who should be sturdy, stable and trustworthy. Instead they piled rumour upon rumour and inflated them into nightmares. Mayor Ray Nagin warned that there could be 10,000 deaths. He told Oprah Winfrey of “hundreds of armed gang members” killing and raping inside the Dome. Police chief Eddie Compass spoke of rapes of “babies” and boasted that he and his officers had spotted 30 criminals shooting in the Dome. Unable to return fire because of the crowd, they had rushed toward muzzle flashes and disarmed hoodlums. But the head of the SWAT team said that he and his team had heard shots and seen muzzle flashes only once.

Experts in emergency management say that the rumours of atrocities were also due to the breakdown in conventional communications systems. People with reliable information were unable to notify authorities.

Queuing up at the Superdome But surely much of the blame must also rest upon the reporters who filled in the rumour dots with lines of fantasy. The Los Angeles Times reported that National Guard troops “took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.”(3)  Later, the Times acknowledged that it had wildly exaggerated the situation.

Under stress, people are bound to exaggerate. Reporters ought to know that. Carl Quintanilla, of NBC News, for instance, told Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour (4)  about an interview with a woman in the convention center. “One of our reporters... said to one woman, really, you’ve seen this; can you take me to the woman who has been raped? She said, absolutely. He said, can you take me to her right now? The woman said, oh, well, I actually heard this story from someone else.” Unfortunately, many other reporters seemed more interested in relaying rumours than checking them. Katrina reporting became a city-wide game of Chinese whispers.

Another explanation for the bad reporting may have been stereotyping. Since most of the people huddled in the Superdome and Convention Center were poor and black, perhaps reporters had low expectations of how well they would cope with the tragedy. Keith Woods, a former reporter and editor at the Times-Picayune and now a lecturer in journalism, who is black himself, told NewsHour:
“I’m perfectly willing to believe that in a city that was beset with the kind of crime that New Orleans was before this happened, that that kind of crime might be going on in the Superdome or the convention center, why not believe that?”
However, the level of crime reported was not just a degree above the horizon (in fact the murder rate for the period was unchanged), it was off the radar. Possibly a better explanation is that journalists must play a lot of video games. If this is the way Grand Auto Theft characters behave law and order break down, this is the way they must behave in real life.

Stereotyping worked the other way as well. According to reports in two major British papers, staff doctors in one New Orleans hospital euthanased critically ill patients with massive doses of morphine in the chaos. Doctors told London’s Daily Mail that their patients would have died anyway and some were in great pain. And Scotland on Sunday described an incident in which a female manager ordered that a 380-pound man be put down because the staff could not evacuate him. Astonishingly, American papers ignored these claims — this kind of scenario doesn’t appear in Grand Auto Theft. Of course they may not have been true. But a follow-up would have uncovered one of the biggest scandals in American medical history or would have been a splendid opportunity for uncovering a clear example of outright fraud in the British media.

Whatever explains their credulity, the journalists who turned the world’s TV sets into Playstations running Grand Auto Theft: New Orleans did their country a great disservice.

What shocked non-Americans was not the flooding, the incompetent rescue work or the damage to the US and world economy. It was those now discredited reports of vile and barbaric behaviour. British historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke of the “decivilisation” of New Orleans: “What’s under threat here is simply civilisation, the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of nature, including human nature. New Orleans opened a small hole through which we glimpsed what always lies below.” (5)  Non-Americans were likely to conclude that there must be something fundamentally wrong with a society which reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature overnight.

Lt Gen Russel Honor? America deserves better. If you believed what you read in the press or saw on the television news, you would think that it is a more anarchic country than Pakistan, where 30,000 may have died in the recent earthquake — without orgies of pillaging, rape and murder.

Perhaps the best comment on the miserable coverage came from the cigar-chewing creole US Army general, Russel Honoré, who took charge of the relief program for Louisiana. He rebuked one obstreperous journalist in the following terms (6) : “Don’t get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don’t confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

(1) “Rumors of deaths greatly exaggerated”. Times Picayune. September 26, 2005.
(2) Michael Lewis. “Wading Towards Home”. New York Times Magazine. October 9, 2005.
(3) “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy”. Los Angeles Times. September 27, 2005.
(4) “Katrina Media Coverage”. NewsHour. September 27, 2005.
(5) Timothy Garton Ash. “It Always Lies Below”. Guardian. Sept 8, 2005.
(6) “Don’t get stuck on stupid”. Radio Blogger. September 20, 2005.
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