[Paleopsych] NYT: More Horrible Than Truth: News Reports

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Sun Sep 25 01:54:37 UTC 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

    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

    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

    "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

    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

    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

    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

    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 [3]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?

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