New Orleans Fiasco — Media Worse Than FEMA
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina the media, with gleeful self-righteousness, portrayed conditions in New Orleans as a Hobbesian state of nature, with killing, rape and pillage run rampant. Now, some more sober assessments are making their way into the media, and they paint a radically different picture.
After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.Further:
Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn’t remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
“I’ve got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome,” Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.Some of the evacuees were indeed hostile toward the police and soldiers, but that was far from the typical case.
As the authorities finally mobilized buses to evacuate the Dome on Sept. 2, many evacuees were nearing the breaking point. Baldwin said soldiers could not have controlled the crowd much longer. They ejected a handful of people attempting to start a riot, screaming at soldiers and pushing crowds to revolt.If one suspects this is biased, since it comes from a New Orleans paper, they should check out a similar article in the Los Angeles Times.
“We’re not prisoners of war - y’all are treating us like evacuees and detainees!” he recalled one of them shouting.
But many others sought to quiet such voices. On the deck outside the Dome on Sept. 1, the day before buses arrived, preachers took it upon themselves to lead the agitated crowd in prayer and song.
“Everybody needs to help the soldiers,” Baldwin recalled one of them saying. “We’re all family here.”
About 15 others joined the medical operation, as people collapsed from heat and exhaustion every few minutes, Baldwin said.
“Some of these guys look like thugs, with pants hanging down around their asses,” he said. “But they were working their asses off, grabbing litters and running with people to the (New Orleans) Arena” next door, which housed the medical operation.
Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor.Most media outlets were suckered, including, the article admits, the Los Angeles Times.
The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each retelling — that an infant’s body had been found in a trash can, that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the business district, that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the Superdome basement.
“It doesn’t take anything to start a rumor around here,” Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. “There’s 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone’s ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor — and the rumor isn’t the same thing it was when you started it.”
Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.The fact that Fox News is on the list suggests that sensationalism, quite independent of ideology, played a role here.
Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began, issued an “alert” as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of “robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness.”
The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops “took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.”
The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.
The tabloid Ottawa Sun reported unverified accounts of “a man seeking help gunned down by a National Guard soldier” and “a young man run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer.”
London’s Evening Standard invoked the future-world fantasy film “Mad Max” to describe the scene and threw in a “Lord of the Flies” allusion for good measure.
Televised images and photographs affirmed the widespread devastation in one of America’s most celebrated cities.
But the fact that the media, during the whole disaster, were obsessing on the effect it would have on the President’s political fortunes suggests the media weren’t too unhappy watching the fiasco unfold on Bush’s watch.
Ironically, the effect of this sort of coverage was to encourage racism. The people left in New Orleans were overwhelmingly black, and somebody who uncritically accepted what was reported would have concluded they were animals.
Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.This, remember, was a black mayor talking.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of “babies,” and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of “hundreds of armed gang members” killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, “we couldn’t count.”
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an “almost animalistic state.”
There was some evil behavior, no doubt, but when the facts are sorted out, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast behaved pretty decently.
But government and the media failed them.