Kathleen Parker

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita packed a wallop - not just with weather that ravaged a region, but also in lessons of hysteria and the power of fear.

Now that winds have calmed and the hot air of punditry has found new objects of bloviation, we learn that much of what we thought we knew was wrong. That sentence has a familiar, and unwelcome, ring to it. We know what comes next:

Who knew what and when? Whom to blame for what went wrong? From Baghdad to New Orleans, we seem to be plagued with flawed information. Bad intelligence.

The latest news out of New Orleans and other areas hit by the hurricanes is of the non-news variety: Many of the horror stories that whipped Americans into a frenzy were exaggerated or bogus.

Tens of thousands of dead did not turn up. Gangs were not murdering and raping babies in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. Homeless and hungry people were not noshing on the dead bodies floating through New Orleans' flooded streets.

As we return slowly to relative calm, it's stunning to imagine how anyone believed such tales in the first place. If you got an e-mail today saying that people without food for four days had begun eating their dead, you'd go immediately to Snopes.com - the Web site that tracks urban legends - read the word "False," and nod appreciatively that you were smart enough to spot an apocryphal tale.

Yet, in the midst of witnessing truly horrifying scenes of devastation and television reporters breaking down on camera, some people were oddly credulous. Is it human nature to believe the worst in times of extreme stress? Are some rumors so delicious - or so disgusting - that we can't let them simmer a day or two?

Bodies were stacked in a freezer, we heard. One of them was a 7-year-old girl with her throat slashed. When the world seems to be splitting apart - or is being covered in a deluge that can only be described as biblical - it's easy to go to our darkest places.

But of course they're eating the dead!

I suspect we'll be having this conversation for a long time. As nearly everyone has noted, there's plenty of blame to go around. But the biggest lesson of all is one we can't seem to learn - that the television media by its presence changes the nature and substance of events.

Yes, I'm part of the media, but the impact of a twice-weekly opinion column can't be compared to real-time film coverage involving camera crews, producers, 24/7 celebrity journalists and a soundtrack. The difference is about a million degrees of drama.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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