September 19, 2005
More Horrible Than Truth: News Reports
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.
First, anyone with any knowledge of the events in New Orleans knows that terrible things with non-natural causes occurred: there were assaults, shots fired at a rescue helicopter and, given the state of the city's police department, 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."
Later that night on MSNBC, Tucker Carlson grabbed the flaming baton and ran with it. "People are being raped," he said in a conversation with the Rev. Al Sharpton. "People are being murdered. People are being shot. Police officers being shot."
Some journalists did find sources. About 10 p.m. that same evening, Greta Van Susteren of Fox interviewed Dr. Charles Burnell, an emergency room physician who was providing medical care in the Superdome.
"Well, we had several murders. We had three murders last night. We had a total of six rapes last night. We had the day before I think there were three or four murders. There were half a dozen rapes that night," he told Ms. Van Susteren. (Dr. Burnell did not return several calls asking for comment.) On the same day, The New York Times referred to two rapes at the Superdome, quoting a woman by name who said she was a witness.
It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city's SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.
On Sept. 8, Lt. Dave Banelli, head of the sex crimes unit, told a CNN correspondent, Drew Griffin, that his division had reports of two attempted rapes at the Superdome. The caveat here is that rape is a notoriously underreported crime, perhaps more so under the chaotic circumstances.
The journalists who dwelled on some of the more improbable stories out of New Orleans might be held to account, except that they eventually received confirmation from both the mayor and the police chief.
Appearing on "Oprah" on Sept. 6, Chief Eddie Compass said of the Superdome: "We had little babies in there, some of the little babies getting raped." Mayor C. Ray Nagin concurred: "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
But the night before, Chief Compass had told The Guardian, "We don't have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if they come forward." Many of the more toxic rumors seem to have come from evacuees, half-crazed with fear sitting through night after night in the dark. Victims, officials and reporters all took one of the most horrific events in American history and made it worse than it actually was.
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.
"There is a timeless primordial appeal of the story of a city in chaos and people running loose," said Carl Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Northwestern University and the author of "Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief." He says that urban chaos narratives offered "the fulfillment of some timely ideas and prejudices about the current social order."
In New Orleans, the misinformation extracted a terrible toll in another way. An international press eager to jump on American pathology played the unfounded reports for all they were worth, with hundreds of news outlets regurgitating tales of lawlessness. "They're Going to Kill or Rape Us, Get Us Out" read the headline in The Daily Star, a British tabloid. "Tourist Tells of Murder and Rape," was one headline in The Australian. "Snipers Shoot at Hospitals. Evacuees Raped, Beaten," The Ottawa Citizen reported.
"I think that citizens of New Orleans have been stigmatized in a way that is going to make it difficult to be accepted wherever they go," said Jonathan Simon, who teaches criminal law at the University of California, Berkeley.
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 by telephone from Baton Rouge, La. With the grid down and accurate information at a premium, a game of toxic telephone supplanted logic.
"I talked to a friend and, after the flood, they heard on the radio that a gang of 400 armed black looters were coming over the bridge to Hanrahan, where he lived," said Ken Bode, a professor of journalism at DePauw University and a former correspondent for NBC. "He and his neighbors were sitting in the street with guns and they decided to load up all they could and caravan out. He said the looters never got there because the National Guard turned them back."
There was no band of looters coming their way, but other things that sound too horrible to be true did happen. The widely reported and seemingly fantastical story about a man shooting at a rescue helicopter was confirmed. And the police in Gretna, La., did in fact turn back hundreds of fleeing refugees on the Crescent City Connector.
On Sept. 15, The Chicago Tribune had an extensive report detailing how thugs took some measure of control over people and supplies at the convention center. The Washington Post published a vivid article on the same day detailing how grave the situation in the convention center became, but again, the issue of whether people were murdered was left open.
And yes, true story, a Louisiana congressman under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation hitched a ride on a National Guard truck to his flood-damaged home to pick up, among other things, a box of documents. A rescue helicopter was diverted from picking up survivors after the truck became stuck.
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?