Oprah Winfrey talks to Mayor Ray Nagin
As residents of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans straggled back into
their filthy and chaotic neighbourhood this week, the media came, too.
Paul Murphy, a 22-year-old restaurant cook entered his home and found
the decomposing body of his grandmother. Photographers buzzed around
recording his grief and disgust.

Drama is what the media is good at and in the days after Katrina flooded New Orleans, the media delivered.

As thousands of evacuated citizens huddled in the Dome and Convention
Center, the world learned that Americans were terrorising other
Americans: snipers were firing at rescue helicopters, hundreds of
bodies were piling up in the Convention Center; women, children and
babies were being raped; people were being killed for food and water;
hundreds of crazed gang members with guns were controlling the city.
Mayor Ray Nagin told Oprah Winfrey that his city had reverted to an
“almost animalistic state”. It was a horrifying vision of the future
which will be etched on the minds of observers of America.

There’s only one little problem: it wasn’t true. None of the horrifying
crimes actually happened. What journalists told the world was about as
real as the fantasies of the ultra-violent video game Grand Theft Auto:
San Andreas
.

In a long report, New Orleans’s major newspaper, the Times-Picayune,
investigated most of the allegations and found them absurdly
exaggerated (1) . “Everything was embellished, everything was
exaggerated,” said one senior policeman. “If one guy said he saw six
bodies, then another guy the same six, and another guy saw them — then
that became 18.”

Here is the truth about some of the more lurid stories broadcast around
the world. Most of them revolved around the chaotic and unsanitary
conditions in the Superdome where 30,000 evacuees were being housed and
in the Convention Center, with 10,000 to 20,000 evacuees.


Soldiers under fire in the Superdome
: one National Guardsman shot himself
accidentally in the leg in a scuffle. “We actively patrolled 24 hours a
day, and nobody heard another shot,” said a National Guard officer.


Hundreds of bodies stacked up in the Dome
: no one was murdered in the
Dome. There were six confirmed deaths: four from natural causes, one
overdose and one suicide.


Rampant violence
: soldiers who took control of the Convention Center
were welcomed by the crowd. They found no evidence or witnesses or
victims of any killings, rapes or beatings. A SWAT team responded to
about 10 reports of shots being fired, but no victims ever came
forward. A number of suspects were aggressively frisked, but no guns
were found.


Dozens of rapes
: the Times-Picayune noted that rape is a “notoriously
under-reported” crime, so some could have taken place. But there is no
hard evidence that any happened. One man tried to sexually assault a
young girl but he was turned over to police. There were no child rapes.

Looting: massive looting sprees did not happen, according to a New York
Times
feature (2). “The Ace Hardware store on Oak Street was supposed to
have had its front wall pulled off by a forklift, but it appeared to
be, like most stores and all houses, perfectly intact,” wrote Michael
Lewis. “Of all the stores in town, none looked so well preserved as the
bookshops. No one loots literature.”

Why was such misinformation peddled to the public?

The most obvious reason is the irresponsibility and incompetence of the
city’s mayor and police chief, officials who should be sturdy, stable
and trustworthy. Instead they piled rumour upon rumour and inflated
them into nightmares. Mayor Ray Nagin warned that there could be 10,000
deaths. He told Oprah Winfrey of “hundreds of armed gang members”
killing and raping inside the Dome. Police chief Eddie Compass spoke of
rapes of “babies” and boasted that he and his officers had spotted 30
criminals shooting in the Dome. Unable to return fire because of the
crowd, they had rushed toward muzzle flashes and disarmed hoodlums. But
the head of the SWAT team said that he and his team had heard shots and
seen muzzle flashes only once.

Experts in emergency management say that the rumours of atrocities were
also due to the breakdown in conventional communications systems.
People with reliable information were unable to notify authorities.

Queuing up at the Superdome
But surely much of the blame must also rest upon the reporters who filled in the
rumour dots with lines of fantasy. The Los Angeles Times reported that
National Guard troops “took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers
and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate
to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.”(3)  Later, the Times
acknowledged that it had wildly exaggerated the situation.

Under stress, people are bound to exaggerate. Reporters ought to know that. Carl Quintanilla, of NBC
News, for instance, told Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour (4)  about
an
interview with a woman in the convention center. “One of our
reporters… said to one woman, really, you’ve seen this; can you take
me to the woman who has been raped? She said, absolutely. He said, can
you take me to her right now? The woman said, oh, well, I actually
heard this story from someone else.” Unfortunately, many other
reporters seemed more interested in relaying rumours than checking
them. Katrina
reporting became a city-wide game of Chinese whispers.

Another explanation for the bad reporting may have been stereotyping.
Since most of the people huddled in the Superdome and Convention Center were
poor and black, perhaps reporters had low expectations of how well they
would cope with the tragedy. Keith Woods, a former reporter and editor
at the Times-Picayune and now a lecturer in journalism, who is black
himself, told NewsHour:

“I’m perfectly willing to believe that in a city that was beset with
the kind of crime that New Orleans was before this happened, that that
kind of crime might be going on in the Superdome or the convention
center, why not believe that?”

However, the level of crime reported was not just a degree above the horizon (in fact the
murder rate for the period was unchanged), it
was off the radar. Possibly a better explanation is that journalists
must play a lot of video games. If this is the way Grand Auto Theft
characters behave law and order break down, this is the way they must
behave in real life.

Stereotyping worked the other way as well. According to reports in two
major British papers, staff doctors in one New Orleans hospital
euthanased critically ill patients with massive doses of morphine in
the chaos. Doctors told London’s Daily Mail that their patients would
have died anyway and some were in great pain. And Scotland on Sunday
described an incident in which a female manager ordered that a
380-pound man be put down because the staff could not evacuate him.
Astonishingly, American papers ignored these claims — this kind of
scenario doesn’t appear in Grand Auto Theft.
Of course they may not have been true. But a follow-up would have
uncovered one of the biggest scandals in American medical history or
would have been a splendid opportunity for uncovering a clear example
of outright fraud in the British media.

Whatever explains their credulity, the journalists who turned the
world’s TV sets into Playstations running Grand Auto Theft: New Orleans
did their country a great disservice.

What shocked non-Americans was not the flooding, the incompetent rescue
work or the damage to the US and world economy. It was those now discredited reports of vile
and barbaric behaviour. British historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke of
the “decivilisation” of New Orleans: “What’s under threat here is
simply civilisation, the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of
nature, including human nature. New Orleans opened a small hole through
which we glimpsed what always lies below.” (5)  Non-Americans were
likely to conclude that there must be something fundamentally wrong
with a society which reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature overnight.

Lt Gen Russel Honor?
America deserves better. If you believed what you read
in the press or saw on the television news, you would think that it is
a more anarchic country than Pakistan, where 30,000 may have died in
the recent earthquake — without orgies of pillaging, rape and murder.

Perhaps the best comment on the miserable coverage came from the
cigar-chewing creole US Army general, Russel Honoré, who took charge of
the relief program for Louisiana. He rebuked one obstreperous
journalist in the following terms (6) : “Don’t get stuck on stupid,
reporters. We are moving forward. And don’t confuse the people please.
You are part of the public message. So help us get the message
straight.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Notes
(1) “Rumors of deaths greatly exaggerated”. Times Picayune. September 26, 2005.
(2) Michael Lewis. “Wading Towards Home”. New York Times Magazine. October 9, 2005.
(3) “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy”. Los Angeles Times. September 27, 2005.
(4) “Katrina Media Coverage”. NewsHour. September 27, 2005.
(5) Timothy Garton Ash. “It Always Lies Below”. Guardian. Sept 8, 2005.
(6) “Don’t get stuck on stupid”. Radio Blogger. September 20, 2005.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....