In the last month or so, we've heard a lot of self-congratulation from the press about what a great job they've been doing. At the high water mark of their rain-soaked Katrina coverage, they started to sound like Stuart Smalley telling the mirror, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and, doggone it, people like me." Even the normally hilarious and cynical Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" broke character to congratulate the press for its excellent work.
We now know, thanks to valuable post-mortems by the Los Angeles Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that a great deal of the "great reporting" was in fact great rumor mongering. The stories of rape and murder in the Superdome were all unfounded. Six people died in there, tragically. But nobody was murdered.
All of the major newspapers contributed to the hysterical environment, passing on one unconfirmed rumor after another. And, to be fair, almost everyone else in one way or another contributed to the climate as well. The "blogosphere" - the informal network of independent lay journalists and commentators on the Internet - bought the hyperventilation hook, line and sinker. The low point was almost certainly when Randall Robinson ominously disclosed on The Huffington Post blog that African-Americans in New Orleans had resorted to eating the flesh of corpses to stay alive. This was just days into the flood (it took the stranded Donner Party weeks to resort to eating the dead). Yet this supposedly fact-checked blog found it credible that African-Americans would eat the bloated carcasses floating in New Orleans' floodwaters almost the second they ran out of groceries.
What accounts for this journalistic fiasco?
Social scientists might call this an "overpredicted" event, meaning that there are too many causes to single out just one. Clearly, the breakdown in communications is a major factor. Word of mouth is never reliable. Word of mouth during a chaotic, horrifying disaster is worse than useless. Journalists stuck in isolated areas felt they had no choice but to buy the scuttlebutt coming out of the Superdome. And pundits, like yours truly, simply bought what they were selling - to our discredit.