Columnists > Voices

Media disaster

"One of the worst weeks of reporting in American history"

Issue: "Miers doesn't fit the mold," Oct. 15, 2005

Give a little credit to a few brave souls in the mainstream media for owning up to the possibility that their own journalistic profession should be added to the list of those who had not performed very well during the Katrina crisis. My own local paper ran a banner headline across its editorial pages last Sunday: "Truth, too, was a casualty in New Orleans."

Give them a little credit, I say-but not too much. The media are pretty good at dramatizing their demands, when public failure has occurred, that heads should roll. In this case, though, the candidates for decapitation included media people themselves. So it was circumspect to raise the topic gently and then to set it down quickly.

The reviews of media performance I've seen have focused on relatively superficial issues: Was it 20 bodies that were found at the Superdome on the third day, or was it just eight bodies on the fourth day? It was important for reporters to get such stories right, but quite understandable if there were some contradictory details.

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Getting the big story wrong was another matter. At that point, analysts of media performance have been altogether too forgiving of their own. Media star Oprah Winfrey handed New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin a figurative megaphone to tell the whole world of "hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people," along with his estimate that 10,000 body bags might well be needed. Several networks quoted New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass' confident report that babies were being raped.

But amazingly, none of the reporters seemed to be doing what reporters are always supposed to do. Nobody asked the who, what, when, and where questions. And none of the reporters' network and newsroom bosses seemed to be demanding that answers to those basic queries be provided before the reports were amplified worldwide.

The result, of course, was worldwide misperception. A little humility for the United States now and then might not be a bad thing-but when the Gulf Coast region was portrayed for several days as if it were something less than a Third World country, that picture was just flat wrong. The region stumbled, and even staggered for a few steps. But then, by God's grace, it seemed to catch its balance and is cautiously moving on.

In the process, however, an enormous price had been paid. A national and even global mindset had been created. Profound doubts were planted both about America's national competence, and about that of the sitting administration of that nation. Volatile issues affecting racial and class relations were arbitrarily and artificially fanned. And much of it, we learned afterward, was made up out of whole cloth.

All of which also adds new perspective to the not-so-subtle taunt we heard repeatedly in the weeks following Katrina: If we in the media can understand so easily and quickly and accurately what's going on, what's wrong with you dunderheads in government that it takes you so long? Hear ABC's Ted Koppel, for example, blasting away at some unnamed officials: "You just found out about it today? Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today."

Maybe the dunderheads were just trying to get it right.

Broadcaster and writer Hugh Hewitt was on target when he said last week on PBS's Newshour with Jim Lehrer: "American media threw everything they had at this story, all the bureaus, all the networks, all the newspapers, everything went to New Orleans, and yet they couldn't get inside the convention center, they could not get inside the Superdome to dispel the lurid, the hysterical, the salaciousness of the reporting." Mr. Hewitt calls it "one of the worst weeks of reporting in the history of American media," and said the event "raises this question: If all of that amount of resources was given over to this story and they got it wrong, how can we trust American media in a place far away like Iraq where they don't speak the language, where there is an insurgency? The answer comes back: We really can't."

"If something seems too good to be true," we're taught, "it probably is." Same thing holds for news stories that seem too big to be true. Nor should wise consumers of the news (including readers of WORLD) forget Proverbs 18:17: "The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him."

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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