All the rumors fit to print

Posted: Sep 30, 2005 12:00 AM

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 - 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.

In defense of reporters working live on the scene, their work is extraordinarily difficult. The scope of damage caused by these hurricanes is beyond comprehension. The up-close sight and smell of death is unfamiliar to most of us, and reporters are human, too. When you're the only bridge between suffering and relief - and you're exhausted besides - emotional weather joins the landscape.

Moreover, reporters depend on officials for information. It was New Orleans' own Mayor Ray Nagin who told Americans via the cameras that tens of thousands might be dead. It was New Orleans' police chief, Eddie Compass, recently resigned, who told Oprah Winfrey about "little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. With so much information and disinformation circulating, and so little organization at the top, how does one confirm or negate such statements?

But of course they're raping babies! This always happens when angry, destitute people finally are released from the shackles of oppression, right? Well, maybe not, but I saw a movie once .

Compounding the stress of disaster and chaos is the pressure on reporters to produce "news." In the absence of verifiable facts, rumors fill the void.

Excuses and encomiums aside, there's no question that media presence alters reality. Even abnormal circumstances ratchet up a notch when someone of, say, Geraldo Rivera's celebrity materializes. Whatever the news (ITALICS) was, (END ITALICS) it immediately becomes something else that is, at least in part, about Geraldo.

This is not a new insight, of course. Social scientists long ago hijacked Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty to explain the effect observers have on the thing or person observed. Even so, it's useful to keep in mind, as hysteria seizes the land and fear absconds with reason, that what we're "seeing" on TV is not always to be believed.