Tuesday, September 04, 2007

TWO MUST READS: Goldberg and Whittle

The Media's Katrina Malpractice

Last week, according to LexisNexis, there were more than 2,000 newspaper and wire stories on Hurricane Katrina, along with blanket coverage on cable news. This newspaper alone ran no less than two dozen articles of one kind or another around the two-year anniversary of the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States.

This hurricane of hurricane retrospectives was no doubt long in the works, as editors like to put stories "in the can" for vacation time. The media seemed to cover every angle, particularly the Bush administration's missteps in response to the disaster. And while some might quibble with this or that characterization or selection of facts, ultimately the media were doing what they're supposed to do: hold government accountable.

But there was one thing missing from the coverage of this natural, social, economic and political disaster: the fact that Katrina represented an unmitigated media disaster as well.

Few of us can forget the reports from two years ago. CNN warned that there were "bands of rapists, going block to block." Snipers were reportedly shooting at medical personnel. Bodies at the Superdome, we were told, were stacked like cordwood. The Washington Post proclaimed in a banner headline that New Orleans was a "A City of Despair and Lawlessness," insisting in an editorial that "looters and carjackers, some of them armed, have run rampant." Fox News anchor John Gibson said there were "all kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence. Thugs shooting at rescue crews."

TV reporters raced to the bottom to see who could moralistically preen the most. Interviewers transformed into outright scolds of administration officials. Meanwhile, the distortions, exaggerations and flat-out fictions being offered by New Orleans officials were accelerated and amplified by the media echo chamber. Glib predictions of 10,000 dead, and the chief of police's insistence that there were "little babies getting raped," swirled around the media like so much free-flowing sewage.

It was as though journalistic skepticism of government officials was reserved for the White House, and everyone else got a free pass.

Of course the Bush administration made serious mistakes -- politically, logistically and otherwise -- in a difficult situation. But Katrina unleashed a virus of sanctimony and credulity for urban legends almost without precedent.

Reports of the Superdome being a slaughterhouse were repeated, even though dozens of news organizations had access to the building. CBS alone had 200 people in New Orleans, and yet it couldn't find those bodies stacked to the ceiling or a single rape victim from the roving bands of "Mad Max"-style marauders. That's because nobody was raped or murdered in the Superdome.

The deluge in New Orleans elicited a deluge of wish-fulfillment in the media, as though the hurricane was a biblical sign that something was very wrong in George W. Bush's America. "Everything changed" because of Katrina, insisted CNN's Anderson Cooper. Translation: We're going to tell the story we want to tell about the country from now on. Race and class become the chief prisms for viewing the disaster. Katrina was portrayed as the result of global warming, which (of course!) is Bush's fault.

During last week's bonfire of Katrina navel-gazing, there was virtually no mention of the hyperventilating and inaccurate media reports, even though this newspaper and the Times-Picayune (among others) received accolades for debunking the hysteria less than a month after the hurricane. Yet last week's saturation coverage contained little or no mention of the media's malpractice. It's as if it never happened.

Why? I think the answer is complex, but three factors are surely involved. One, the media are often good watchdogs of government but rarely of themselves. While recycling old complaints about government is permissible, dwelling on your colleagues' failures -- or your own -- just isn't done.

Two, the media have convinced themselves that they did a wonderful job covering Katrina. Dan Rather spoke for his colleagues when he said "everybody across the board did such a good job." It was one of the "quintessential great moments in television news . . . right there with the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it."

And, lastly, journalists are invested in the dominant narratives of Katrina, and they'll be damned if they'll let go, particularly if it comes at the expense of their own credibility, or make Bush's mistakes seem a little less horrendous.

No, it would be better, and much easier, to print the legend.


Once again, my sister and I spent 3 weeks in New Orleans in 1993. Among our various swamp and river cruises, excursions, and cemetary viewings, we had a city tour where it was routinely mentioned that the levees were in bad shape--had been soon after they'd been built--and how little it would take to inundate the city in water... This was NO surprise.

Read how a different kind of people would handle it--and ask yourself into which group you'd fall:

By William Whittle



Blogger Les Ismore said...

Can we blame the media for this administrations incompetence in handling Katrina? According to Goldberg, the answer is a big fat resounding YES!

Whew...need to blame someone, right? I mean, that is what we do, right?

12:50 PM  
Blogger VerityINK said...

As long as you blame Nagin and that Governor FIRST. And the feckless people in New O SECOND.

Go read Bill Whittle's 'Tribes' before you say anymore.

2:06 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

tribes is a powerful piece, les. you, and everyone else, needs to read it.

i wonder which group you'd fall into. I know which group me and mine would.... there's no natural or other disaster that would make me behave as less than i was raised, less than i am. i'm sorry les finds it so easy to leave what he was taught, what he thinks is right.

2:15 PM  
Anonymous bobcat said...

Tom, maybe he doesn't think those awful things are wrong. Maybe he thinks there is no personal responsibility or culpability--as long as hehas a Republican president upon which to blame things.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets not for the notorious racist-writer Randall Robinson who said "Black people in New orleans have resorted to cannibalism''. Remember that? And Loius Farrahkan saying he had it on ''good authority'' that the President had orederd levees in black nieghborhoods dynamitted. J'mac.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Les, have you always been this dumb or do you work at it? Just curious. J'Mac.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Les have you ever wondered why we don't hear this incessant whining from Mississippi or Alabama? MI was actually hit harder than NO. Have you ever stepped out of that myopic leftist box and wondered what the hell is up with that? I'll wait for your reply.


8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the "My Tribe" article and could tell that he wrote it pissed off. I second his feelings on the matter. I can't tell you how many times I've told Nyabingi that he can take his racial problems and SHOVE it!


9:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, Morgan, Alabama and Mississippi were not hit harder. No levees broke flooding a city of nearly 1 million people. Sorry, but as I told you many times before, your anecdotal evidence (in this case your barber who has a cousin whose best friend has a sister near NO) just doesnt cut it in the real world. I anxiously await something real and documented.

3:15 AM  
Anonymous cassie said...

Alabama and Mississippi didn't have a million people affected?

3:27 AM  
Blogger The Merry Widow said...

What about Biloxi? Gulfport? They were wiped out too. They don't have levees, but then, they weren't built on a swamp!


6:29 AM  
Blogger VerityINK said...

As usual, Les has done his usual drive-by with no answer...

5:13 PM  

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