Confession: For the 18th straight year the Media Research Center has sent 100 liberally biased quotations from journalistic stars who pretend to be balanced; I and others are supposed to decide which is the most outrageous. The competition is intense, as always, and we'll report the winner in a later issue, but let me offer one reaction now: Sure, sticks and stones break bones, but words can rob and kill.
You might think that at this point I'll quote reporters giving aid and comfort to terrorists in Iraq, but that's too easy. Instead, I'd like to look at coverage about Hurricane Katrina that delayed rescues and prodded some politicians into making mega-billion-dollar promises.
You probably saw and heard reports of mayhem at the Superdome and the Convention Center, and on the streets of New Orleans. You may have missed the admissions weeks later by NBC, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times that, as The Baltimore Sun noted, stories about "murders, rapes and beatings have turned out to be false."
"Hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people" inside the Dome-never happened. "Thirty or 40 bodies" stored in a Convention Center freezer-not one. Rampaging "armed mobs"-none. "Bands of rapists, going block to block"-never happened. Geraldo Rivera's "scene of terror, chaos, confusion, anarchy, violence, rapes, murders, dead babies"-well, that's Geraldo Rivera.
Orleans Parish D.A. Eddie Jordan said four murders occurred in the entire city during the week after Katrina hit, making it a typical week in a city averaging 200 homicides per year. The Superdome had one shooting: Louisiana National Guardsman Chris Watt accidentally shot himself in the leg. New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard said he had seen only seven gunshot victims during hurricane week: "Seven gunshots isn't even a good Saturday night in New Orleans."
Why the hype? Official sources like the mayor and the police chief were hysterical, and some reporters merely became megaphones for them. Crying and yelling made for better ratings than calm assessments of damage. Network stars wanted to display what passed as compassion. Since few reporters knew what was happening, a pack mentality kicked in as reporters congregated in places of safety. Politics also played a role, with liberals framing the story as one of rich people not caring about poor people and whites not caring about blacks.
But media exaggeration was not a victimless crime. It delayed the arrival of responders who, relying on press reports, had to plan their missions as military rather than philanthropic endeavors. Soldiers on hot days felt it necessary to don heavy body armor, which also slowed them down. New Orleans police stopped their search-and-rescue operations and turned their attention to the imagined mobs of rapists. Two patients apparently died while waiting for evacuation helicopters grounded for a day by false reports of sniper fire.
Bush-bashing of course came to the fore, with the typical mainstream media view voiced well by former New York Times executive editor Howell Raines: "The churchgoing cultural populism of George Bush" means that "the poor drown in their attics." MSNBC, ABC, NPR, and Newsweek journalists were among the multitude who took the disaster as an opportunity to campaign overtly for higher taxes and bigger government. The international image of America, crucial to the war on terror, took an enormous hit, as journalists described rampant heartlessness.
But the biggest loser may have been race relations. The picture that emerged was one of African-American masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other as well as the police trying to protect them and rescue workers trying to save them. In reality, almost all were law-abiding, but author Michael Lewis summarized the network view this way: "Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes" and communicated this message: "Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit."
My bag limit these days is a maximum of two columns a year on liberal press bias, especially since it's like shooting fish in a barrel. But Katrina coverage-oh, what a disaster.