What do you "know" about the recent hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast and how did you come by the information?
If your knowledge was acquired from watching the broadcast and cable networks, as it was for most people, you "know" only what their reporters and anchors told you. What they told you initially was that as many as 10,000 people probably died in New Orleans after the city was hit by Hurricane Katrina. They also reported on roving gangs who looted and terrorized survivors. And they claimed people were being raped in a darkened Superdome due to lack of security.
You also "know" that emergency relief efforts were either nonexistent or ineffective and that it was the federal government that was largely responsible because it is incompetent and its white leaders don't like poor black people.
President Bush's approval ratings are at a record low due, in part, to the public's disapproval of how the media characterized his performance in the aftermath of Katrina and the largely unrebutted assault by some Democrats who engaged in political opportunism.
Cable TV reporters made their own kind of news by screaming for help and accusing the government of not sending any. Some newspapers lauded them for becoming involved in their stories and for demonstrating a moral conscience.
Weeks after these "facts" have been deeply implanted in the public consciousness, we are now learning that much of what we "know" is incorrect.
On Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the body count numbers had been inflated. The paper also described the reported sniper attacks on civilians and fire and rescue personnel as some of the "scores of examples of myths about the (Super)dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."
Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the Convention Center, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and among the 841 recorded deaths related to the storm, just four were identified as gunshot victims. National Guard spokesman Major Ed Bush was inside the Superdome and told the Los Angeles Times, "What I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts of people helping people." He noted that most of those stories never made it into the newspapers or on TV.
It is dangerous in chaotic situations for journalists to accept as truth accounts of distressed "witnesses" who repeat rumors as if they have actually seen what they describe.
The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, didn't help when he told Oprah Winfrey's vast TV audience about people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." Police Chief Eddie Compass told Oprah about "little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. Not true, but it made a riveting story and the public rewarded cable networks with high ratings.
Journalists like stories about the black poor because it allows them to beat up on a supposedly "uncaring" Republican administration, though they mostly seem to ignore such people when a Democrat is in the White House.
Few white reporters want to question or imply anything negative when it comes from a poor black person for fear they might be tarred with the "racist" label. It didn't help that some of New Orleans' top officials confirmed many of the accounts of lawlessness. But did they "know" these things, or were they repeating rumors? Did journalists bother to ask them, or was the story too good to be hurt by facts?
The Los Angeles Times story noted, "The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone." It also had unwarranted consequences on the president's approval ratings and may have caused Congress to throw too much money at the recovery effort without sufficient accountability.
- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.