MSM Outs Self; Bloggers Pounce

With some notable exceptions, the media is widely thought — no less by itself — to have done an admirable job in its Katrina coverage. Now, according to a new, introspective review from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, it turns out that the widely reported tales of murder and anarchy in New Orleans’ Superdome and Convention Center, passed along at the time by an anxious media, were, with few exceptions, gross exaggerations.

But sometimes you can’t win for losing. Thus, this important example of self-scrutiny, far from drawing admiration, has attracted vituperation from that portion of the blogosphere eager, as always, to jump on what it still quaintly refers to as the MSM.

In a piece carried by the Newhouse News Service (and in longer form at the Times-Picayune’s blog), Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell write that a Louisiana National Guard colonel expected to find up to 200 bodies in the Superdome at the end of that first chaotic week after the hurricane, but “the real total” he found was half a dozen (four of whom appear to have died of natural causes). Meanwhile, at the Convention Center, “despite reports of heaps of dead piled inside the building,” only four bodies have been recovered. The paper continues:

That the nation’s frontline emergency-management officials believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the news media and even some of the city’s top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees — mass murders, rapes and beatings — have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

John Hinderaker at Powerline is among those leading the backlash. Putting his usual partisan spin on the issue, in a post entitled “It’s Time To Investigate the Press,” Hinderaker writes:

With the passage of time, it has become apparent that most of the “evidence” on the basis of which the Democrats launched their hysterical post-Katrina attack on the Bush administration was wrong. As the facts come into focus, the dominant question that emerges is: how could the mainstream media have done such a poor job in reporting on Hurricane Katrina? …

It’s time for some accountability here. The conventional wisdom is that no one performed particularly well in the aftermath of Katrina — not local, state or federal authorities, and not considerable numbers of private citizens. But it now appears clear that the worst performance of all was turned in by the mainstream media.

The media, says Laura Lee Donoho at The Wide Awake Cafe, “have been playing ‘telephone’ about the reports of all the deaths and atrocities in the Superdome and Convention Center in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The media bought it and hysterically reported it and many in America believed it …” Calling for apologies on several fronts, she says that this game “wasn’t funny”: “Whether intentionally, or accidentally, the message that the news media presented was shaped in such a way to cause panic and anger pointed at the federal government and ultimately at President Bush.”

For her part, Polimom tries to probe a little deeper. Wrestling with whether the new news is “damage control, or reality?” she writes:

Certainly the stories from the Superdome and the Convention Center are among the most horrifying I’ve ever heard. I absolutely believe there [was] looting, gunfire, and mayhem. The city definitely was burning and exploding, and people died. It wasn’t all a fantasy spurred by panic and hysteria.

BUT — another reality is that the media, too, fell victim to the panic. Furthermore, I believe they self-perpetuated their own hysteria.

Still, she concludes, “A significant amount of what we were told was going on in New Orleans was true.”

Joy-Ann Reid of the Reid Report seems to respond more personally, writing that “the initial reports of what was happening in New Orleans were a collective smear on that city’s residents. Thankfully, the accounts are being corrected.” Getting past (with some space) the hyperbole, she concisely returns the focus to the misery of those days that remains undisputed:

There was horror inside those designated evacuation centers: the horror of waiting without food, water or hope for nearly four long days; the horrors of no sanitation, filthy conditions, people who died because they didn’t have their medication, or from the heat. There was violence, too — the good and the bad were thrown together by circumstance, and the bad surely preyed upon the weak.

Our own take is that Thevenot and Russell’s review of the evidence is an important example of a self-correcting media at work. Disasters spawn rumors; that’s a truth as old as weather itself. Overwhelmed public officials are as susceptible as any of us to passing on the inflated tales of horrific crimes that they hear. But it’s important to remember that in those first few days after Katrina, while the media did let itself be used as a conduit for wild rumor and fevered speculation, the vast bulk of its reporting was based on what it saw on the ground in New Orleans.

And that’s true no matter how much the blogosphere eagerly seizes on the latest work of a couple of reporters doing what they’re supposed to do — setting the record straight — to castigate the very press those reporters are part of.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.