Remember all those stories, in the wake of Katrina, about how the media were performing a great public service by dramatizing the plight of the victims and holding government accountable? Now we know the media were responsible for circulating false stories about rape and murder in New Orleans.
“At last, Reporters’ Feelings rise to the Surface” was the headline over a Howard Kurtz story in the Washington Post shortly after the disaster. He wrote that “Journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being.”
Hold on for a minute. Sorry about that. The praise was premature. It seems the media watchdogs were wrong about the coverage being so impressive. It turns out that the alleged eyewitness accounts from New Orleans and other locations were just another chapter in the sad performance of the media. “In the early days after the storm, truth may have been just one more casualty of Katrina’s wrath,” reported correspondent Martin Savidge of NBC News. Yes, the media got it wrong again.
Savidge is one reporter who got it right. He reported, “We spent three days at the Convention Center reporting on the human suffering. We heard the terrible accounts of rape and murder, even the killing of children, but the only deaths we reported were the ones we actually saw.”
Evacuees weren’t among those spreading inaccuracies. But false reports also came from Mayor Ray Nagin, who went on the Oprah Winfrey Show on September 6 to claim that “They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.” The day before, on NBC’s Today show, Nagin made his projection of the dead. “It wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000,” he said. The confirmed death toll in Louisiana is just over 1,000.
We shouldn’t forget those media hotdogs who tried to exploit the stories to make themselves heroes. As noted by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach in an article in the Washington Post, the “surge of emotion among journalists who covered the devastation” was demonstrated by Jeanne Meserve of CNN, who broke down emotionally on the air; Anderson Cooper, also of CNN, who “got mad;” and Shepard Smith of Fox, who acted “outraged.”
And then there was Geraldo Rivera of Fox, who claimed the New York Times had defamed him by saying that he nudged a rescue worker aside so that he could act like a hero on the scene of the devastation. The film of the incident didn’t show a nudge and the Times eventually corrected the record. But that was almost beside the point. The issue was Rivera making himself part of the story. He should have stayed out of it.
As Rosenstiel and Kovachs said, “Human emotion is at the heart of what makes something news. But if journalists try to manufacture it or use it to bring attention to themselves, they’re into something there is already enough of: reality entertainment.”