- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

What do you “know” about the recent hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast and how did you learn it?

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. Initially, they told you was as many as 10,000 people probably died in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. They also reported on roving gangs who looted and terrorized survivors and on rapes in a darkened Superdome due to lack of security.

You also “know” emergency relief was nonexistent or ineffective largely because of the federal government leaders’ incompetence and dislike of poor black people.

President Bush’s approval ratings are at a record low due, partly, 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 and anchors 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 demonstrating a moral conscience.

Weeks after these “facts” were planted deeply in the public consciousness, we learn much of what we “know” is incorrect.

On Monday, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported the body count had been inflated. The paper also said reported sniper attacks on civilians and fire and rescue personnel were 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 gunshot victims were found.

National Guard spokesman Maj. 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 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 actually saw what they describe.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t help when he told Oprah Winfrey’s vast TV audience about people “in that … 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.

A Los Angeles Times story Tuesday on the media’s failure to report truthfully and accurately noted that journalists blame the telephone service breakdown for the inaccuracies and says race also may have been a factor.

Bad telephone service is not an excuse for putting anything and everything on the air without fact-checking. Waiting until you can get it right is always preferable to any ratings advantage from allowing the journalistic equivalent of polluted water to pour into the public mind. The media should have been a levee keeping out the bad stuff, but too often failed to do so.

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 skepticism about accounts from a poor black person for fear of being labeled “racist.” It didn’t help that some top New Orleans officials confirmed many stories of lawlessness. But did they “know” these things, or were they repeating rumors? Did journalists bother to ask, 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 enough accountability.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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