David Carr, a regular Times contributor, discovers media hype in the Katrina coverage.
Careful readers will infer that Mr. Carr writes these columns as some sort of a media critic who focuses on television coverage, so the performance of the NY Times itself is given a pass. Casual readers will be left at sea.
In Mr. Carr's world, it was Fox News, talk radio, and the internet that hyped the violence and atrocities. However, let's notice the gap between criticism and evidence:
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.
OK, if Fox reported "the systematic rape of children", or "the slitting of a 7-year-old's throat", this was the time to mention it. Instead, we get a generic mention of violence, looting, and rapes. Does Mr. Carr contend that this was *not* happening?
Well, we don't need to look far to find a news source that was passing on some of the dramatic crime stories. If Fox "helped set the scene" with their Sept 1 broadcast, let's see what the NY Times offered on Sept 1:
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 - Chaos gripped New Orleans on Wednesday as looters ran wild, food and water supplies dwindled, bodies floated in the floodwaters, the evacuation of the Superdome began and officials said there was no choice but to abandon the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, perhaps for months.
...With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.
...They had flocked to the arena seeking sanctuary from the winds and waters of Hurricane Katrina. But understaffed, undersupplied and without air-conditioning or even much lighting, the domed stadium quickly became a sweltering and surreal vault, a place of overflowing toilets and no showers. Food and water, blankets and sheets, were in short supply. And the dome's reluctant residents exchanged horror stories, including reports, which could not be confirmed by the authorities, of a suicide and of rapes.
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 31 - In a city shut down for business, the Rite Aid at Oak and South Carrollton was wide open on Wednesday. Someone had stolen a forklift, driven it four blocks, peeled up the security gate and smashed through the front door.
One police officer was shot Tuesday trying to stop looting, but he was expected to survive.
An emergency medical vehicle that was taking a Baton Rouge police officer who had been shot last month from a hospital back to his hometown was shot at on the way out of New Orleans on Tuesday.
Fair and balanced at the NY Times.
We also take issue with a specific point made twice by Mr. Carr:
(1) ...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...
(2) The widely reported and seemingly fantastical story about a man shooting at a rescue helicopter was confirmed.
Confirmed by whom? Matt Welch wrote a better, earlier column about Katrina media hype on Sept 6, and said this about the helicopter incident [which he later withdrew - see UPDATE]:
Relief efforts ground to a halt last week after reports circulated of looters shooting at helicopters, yet none of the hundreds of articles I read on the subject contained a single first-hand confirmation from a pilot or eyewitness. The suspension-triggering attack—on a military Chinook attempting to evacuate refugees from the Superdome—was contested by Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown, who told ABC News, "We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on." What's more, when asked about the attacks, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff replied: "I haven't actually received a confirmed report of someone firing on a helicopter."
From the ABC story to which Matt links, we see "confirmation" from a National Guard officer:
"At the Superdome, we have a report that one shot was fired at a Chinook helicopter," [Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard] said, adding that the Chinook is "an extremely large aircraft."
Although he ignored the Times own breathless coverage of rapes, looting, and vigilantism, I am sure Mr. Carr will welcome an opportunity to document this particular assertion about the confirmation of reports that a helicopter was fired upon. We don't want any hype in the hype-denouncing story, do we?
Times Public Editor Byron Calame can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: Under their (relatively) new policy, when the NY Times corrects a story, they note the presence of a correction at the top of the website version ("Correction Appended"), and run the correction at the bottom. (See this example).
Would that "Reason" achieved that level of transparency. Matt Welch ran a correction to his Reason article the next day, telling us that his helicopter reporting had crashed and burned; I certainly did not pick that up in reading the original piece.
In addition, here is an eyewitness claiming he saw "people firing at military helicopters".