Blame and Body Counts

Just when we thought we’d already experienced the entire spectrum of dreadful cable news punditry — several times over — along comes media columnist Jon Friedman, who appeared on Fox News’ “Your World With Neil Cavuto” yesterday afternoon, with his own brand of dreadful. (And Cavuto didn’t look too good, either).

Perhaps inspired by First Lady Laura Bush’s blame-gaming yesterday (Mrs. Bush implied that the media is focusing too much on the negative in Katrina’s aftermath, an eerily familiar assertion which, to our mind, could only be made by someone getting their news on DVD from Dan Bartlett), Cavuto invited Friedman on to discuss, per the on-screen Fox News banner, this question: “Is the media to blame for overstating Katrina death toll?” The segment began as follows:

Cavuto: 25,000 body bags ordered, as many as 10,000 feared death from Katrina’s wrath, but over two weeks after she hit, the numbers are apparently far, far lower than we predicted. How did we in the media get it so wrong and who is to blame? … As part defense here, we had the mayor of New Orleans saying that we had the governor of Louisiana saying that, we had FEMA officials estimating that. So, we were just following them, weren’t we?

Friedman: You can’t believe what you hear or read, unfortunately. They were wrong. They — and in their sincerity or helping themselves got it wrong.

So what with the mayor of New Orleans predicting 10,000 dead, and FEMA ordering up twice that many body bags, what exactly should reporters have done to project a more realistic death toll at a time when most of New Orleans was still underwater and the recovery of bodies had barely begun? Friedman explains: “We should have checked somehow with scientific ways or just checked more carefully to get it right.”

What “scientific ways” did Friedman have in mind, we wondered? Alas, Cavuto did not similarly wonder and, as often happens on cable news shows, another useless and baffling statement was left standing and unchallenged, as reporter/host and reporter/pundit moved on in order to squeeze the most talking headery that they could into the four-minute segment.

Important talking headery like the following:

Cavuto: Do you generally think we overstate things — not we at Fox but all media (just kidding)….How did we get it so wrong…”

Friedman: I think we panicked, too, unfortunately. We try to be as accurate as possible. We try to be first, which is probably a sickness of ours in this business. We try to be first at all costs. Sometimes it’s better to step back and think and pause before you jump in with a number.

Perhaps realizing that he had already failed to follow his own advice to step back, think and pause before jumping in with a meaningless phrase like “scientific ways,” Friedman did think, pause and decline to answer the staggeringly dumb question that was to follow. Cavuto — after bringing Friedman on to decry the folly of estimated body counts — then asked him to come up with an estimated body count.

Cavuto: You don’t think the 10,000 count is going to come close to reality?

Friedman: I couldn’t tell you.

Cavuto: You wouldn’t hazard a guess?

Friedman:. Unless I knew for sure…I wouldn’t hazard a guess.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.