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.
A Los Angeles Times story Tuesday on the media's failure to report truthfully and accurately noted that journalists blame the breakdown of telephone service for the inaccuracies and says that race may also have been a factor.
Bad telephone service is not a sufficient excuse for putting anything and everything on the air without fact-checking. Waiting until you can get it right is always preferable to whatever ratings advantage one gets from allowing the journalistic equivalent of polluted water to pour into the public mind. The media should have acted as a levee in keeping out the bad stuff, but in too many cases it 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 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 co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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