Adding (False) Drama to the Trauma

Monday, September 19, 2005

Adding (False) Drama to the Trauma

In today's New York Times, David Carr writes:
Disaster has a way of bringing out the best and the worst instincts in the news media. It is a grand thing that during the most terrible days of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters found their gag reflex and stopped swallowing pat excuses from public officials. But the media's willingness to report thinly attributed rumors may also have contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that will not clean up easily.

... anyone with any knowledge of the events in New Orleans knows that terrible things with non-natural causes occurred: there were assaults ... (and) many other crimes that probably went unreported.

But many instances in the lurid libretto of widespread murder, carjacking, rape, and assaults that filled the airwaves and newspapers have yet to be established or proved, as far as anyone can determine. And many of the urban legends that sprang up -- the systematic rape of children, the slitting of a 7-year-old's throat -- so far seem to be just that.

The fact that some of these rumors were repeated by overwhelmed local officials does not completely get the news media off the hook. A survey of news reports in the LexisNexis database shows that on Sept. 1, the news media's narrative of the hurricane shifted.

The Fox News anchor, John Gibson, helped set the scene: "All kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence. Thugs shooting at rescue crews. Thousands of police and National Guard troops are on the scene trying to get the situation under control. Thousands more on the way. So heads up, looters."

A reporter, David Lee Miller, responded: "Hi, John. As you so rightly point out, there are so many murders taking place. There are rapes, other violent crimes taking place in New Orleans." After the interview, Mr. Gibson did acknowledge that "we have yet to confirm a lot of that."

... Although I was not in New Orleans, I was at the World Trade Center towers site the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. People had seen unimaginable things, but a small percentage, many still covered in ash, told me tales that were worse than what actually happened. Mothers throwing babies out of the towers, men getting in fights on the ledges, human heads getting blown out of the buildings, all of which took place so high up in the air that it was hard to distinguish the falling humans from the falling wreckage.

... Howard Witt, the Southwest bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune, wrote early on that much of what he had been told, even by public officials, did not check out. And he found himself inundated by rumors.

"The Web and talk radio fueled these rumors in the days following the storm, and the evacuees themselves contributed to the misinformation because they were so scared," he said .... Even now, the real, actual events in New Orleans in the past three weeks surpass the imagination. Who needs urban myths when the reality was so brutal?

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