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.
We weren't helped by the scandalously irresponsible actions of New Orleans' leadership. Mayor Ray Nagin and Chief of Police Eddie Compass - who resigned as this column went to press - circulated rumors to a pliant national media machine uncritically. Compass told Oprah Winfrey of "little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. Ray Nagin complained of the horrors faced by those "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." Compass told the press his officers were involved in shootouts inside the stadium, with hundreds of armed gang members. The Times-Picayune found evidence for none of this.
Public safety officials and elected leaders have a responsibility to provide factual information during disasters. And even when they give bad news to the public, it's common sense that they do it in a way that doesn't cause panic. They went a different way, and journalists who normally assume such sources will behave responsibly were burned in the process.
Race is obviously part of the equation, too. "If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle-class white people," Times Picayune editor Jim Amoss said, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor mongering." As with the cannibalism canard, there seemed to be an eagerness on the part of many - on the right and left - to believe the very worst stories possible about poor African-Americans.
And then there's politics. Setting aside the no doubt authentic concerns and outrage of the press, who can deny that there wasn't a certain amount of Schadenfreude at work here? Almost instantly, Katrina was declared George W. Bush's debacle and proof of myriad long-simmering gripes against the president, from his alleged hatred of the poor to his cartoon villainy on global warming. James Wolcott, Vanity Fair's media critic, not only admitted he "roots" for hurricanes, but he was downright giddy that Katrina might erase the effects of 9/11 because the casualty numbers were "threatening the inviolable aura of '3000 dead.' " Let the record show that the 10,000 dead number was just one more irresponsible improvisation from Mayor Nagin.
The foreign press was even more unconstrained, asserting every pseudo-scientific global warming theory imaginable and declaring the moral bankruptcy of the United States. Some couldn't even restrict themselves to the inaccurate rumors actually reported. Writing in the British tabloid The Sun, Jeremy Clarkson penned a column, titled "Flood that released America's demons," in which he flatly declared that desperate New Orleans residents were "finding themselves being blown to pieces by a helicopter gunship."
The president isn't blameless either. The initial response to Katrina was a mess. We'll have plenty of time to debate how much of a mess and who was responsible. But it's a political fact that when the media was hysterical and local leadership behaving abysmally, Bush did not successfully impose order. That's something he'd have to do in the wake of terrorist attack, and it's something he should have done with Katrina.
Let's hope lessons were learned all around.