W. Joseph Campbell

Archive for the ‘Hurricane Katrina’ Category

For the media, Harvey was no Katrina redux; here’s why

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on September 2, 2017 at 10:58 am

Twelve years ago today, newspaper headlines across the United States told of chaos and anarchy that supposedly was sweeping New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall.

Katrina churns, 2005

“Anger, Anarchy, Desperation,” declared the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle of  September 2, 2005.

“Crisis to Chaos,” said the Scottsdale Tribune in Arizona. “Toward Anarchy,” cried the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut. “Descent into Chaos,” asserted the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Snipers fired on cops and rescue workers” in New Orleans, reported the New York Daily News. “Gangs of looters took anything that wasn’t nailed down.”

In New Orleans, the Times-Picayune newspaper (see image nearby) declared on its front page of September 2, 2005, that “chaos and lawlessness rule the streets.”

The horror and mayhem that news organizations so widely reported 12 years ago proved highly exaggerated, but it had the effect of tainting a city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability.

As I noted in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the reporting of Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism, despite some attempts to characterize it as such.

“In the days following Katrina’s landfall,” I wrote, “news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed. They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. … They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported that roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome [where hundreds of storm evacuees took shelter], raping and killing. They said that children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

“None of those reports was verified or substantiated.” Little of it was true.

D-minus was a grade none too severe for the post-Katrina coverage.

“Americans depend on timely and accurate reporting, especially during times of crisis,” a bipartisan select committee of the House of Representatives later said in a 600-page report about the hurricane’s aftermath, adding that “accurate reporting was among Katrina’s many victims.

“If anyone rioted,” the report declared, “it was the media. Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

It is useful now to recall the erroneous and exaggerated coverage of Katrina’s aftermath because the destructive sweep of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas at the end of last month gave rise to little such egregious misreporting and produced few if any examples of the media having “rioted” in their storm coverage.

For news organizations, Harvey was no Katrina.

Here are some reasons why:

• Reasonably competent public officials. In Texas, state and local officials — including the mayor of Houston — were more credible, knowledgeable, and restrained than were senior public officials in New Orleans. Ray Nagin, the then-mayor of New Orleans, and Eddie Compass, the then-police commissioner, were sources for some of the most gruesome yet erroneous reports of lawlessness in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the Superdome. The mayor said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Compass spoke of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” the police commissioner said of the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.

Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were widely reported — but were almost completely without foundation. (Months later, Compass said he passed along rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”)

By contrast, Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, projected an image of even-tempered authority. He spoke often to the news media, typically in measured and sedate tones. He didn’t preen for the cameras, and certainly didn’t mischaracterize his city as having been seized by violence and lawlessness. The only significant controversy to swirl around Turner was whether he should have ordered a mandatory evacuation as Harvey approached from the Gulf of Mexico.

No narrative-shifting surprises. Katrina’s aftermath marked by a surprising and decisive turn after the storm had passed: Not long after it appeared the city had been spared the hurricane’s worst effects, levees protecting the city began to fail, sending floodwaters across much of New Orleans. That development abruptly shifted news coverage of Katrina from having escaped a close call to something more grim and devastating. New Orleans was mostly under water and rumors of social disintegration, many of which made their way into news reports, soon were circulating.

Harvey was forecast to drop upwards of 50 inches of rain on parts of southeastern Texas, predictions that proved largely accurate. Journalists, at least in broad terms, knew what to expect; the absence of a narrative-altering surprise allowed them to keep story lines trained on storm victims, rescues and evacuations, without having to chase bleak rumors of mayhem and violence.

Principal controversies that arose about post-Harvey coverage focused on questions of media ethics — whether it was appropriate for a reporter to send Twitter messages about what he considered looting, and when a reporter should pull back from an on-camera interview of a clearly distraught storm victim.

Dubious memes were quickly debunked. An image of a shark plying floodwaters in Texas received a brief and apparently credulous mention on the Fox News Channel, but the photograph soon was exposed as fake. For a time, the Washington Post’s “Intersect” blog kept a running list of storm-related hoaxes and exaggerations that appeared on social media. Such compilations helped keep a lid on the over-the-top stuff.

Social media platforms — most of which hadn’t been developed in 2005 — seemed to have performed fairly well, overall. Notably, Facebook and Twitter became in Harvey’s aftermath lifelines for storm victims and their families.

Stirring images. Some of the most memorable photographs of Harvey were not of agony and grim misery (like the Times-Picayune front page of September 2, 2005) but were heartening — such as the one of a Houston police SWAT officer striding in knee-deep flood water, carrying woman who was cradling her 13-month-old son. The image was taken by an Associated Press photographer and became “a symbol of the storm and rescue efforts,” as a Houston television station described it.

AP photo/David J. Phillip

The AP photographer, David J. Phillip, captured another memorable image of the storm — a panorama of a flooded Houston boulevard where a swarm of human forms confronted the waters in a tableau of evident grit, resilience, and aquatic rescue. The photo at once testified to turmoil the hurricane had created and to an absence of turmoil in response.

The post-landfall coverage of Harvey may not have been magnificent, but in all it didn’t merit a D-minus.

I’d give it a B, at least.


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10 years on: News media shy from revisiting flawed Katrina coverage

In Anniversaries, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Newspapers, Television on August 25, 2015 at 1:23 pm

Katrina, 10 years ago

I call it the “myth of superlative reporting,” the notion that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught 10 years ago, journalists bravely held powerful officials accountable for their inept responses to a storm blamed for the deaths of 1,800 people.

Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchorman, gave voice to the “myth of superlative reporting,” describing Katrina coverage as “one of the quintessential great moments in television news,” ranking “right there with the Nixon/Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

A quintessential great moment is was not.

The reporting of Katrina, as I wrote in my 2010 media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong” in describing horrors the storm supposedly unleashed across New Orleans after making landfall east of the city on August 29, 2005.

Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel, I noted. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center in New Orleans. They told of bodies being stacked like cordwood inside the Convention Center.

News reports also spoke of roving gangs that terrorized occupants of the Louisiana Superdome, where many people had taken shelter. The reports said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

“If anyone rioted,” said a bipartisan congressional report about Katrina, “it was the media.

“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”

Erroneous and over-the-top reporting, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”

Which was rather how Maureen Dowd characterized Katrina’s aftermath in her New York Times column, published September 3, 2005, under the headline, “United States Of Shame”:Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 3.39.57 PM

“America,” she wrote, “is once more plunged into a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning. But this time it’s happening in America.”

Far more measured and perceptive was her Times colleague, Jim Dwyer, whom Brian Thevenot quoted this way, in a searching critique of the coverage of Katrina:

“I just thought that some of the reports were so garish, so untraceable and always seemed to stop short of having actual witnesses to the atrocities … like a galloping mythical nightmare had taken control.”

The erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the important effect delaying the delivery of aid to New Orleans — and of defaming the residents of a battered city, depicting them as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.

Little of the flawed coverage has been revisited or recalled in the run-up to the 10th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall. As they did in fifth anniversary retrospectives, journalists have mostly shied from addressing the errors in their coverage and have avoided considering how that coverage offers broader insights about reporting on disasters and other dramatic events.

The 10th anniversary reports have instead offered conflicting assessments about how New Orleans has made a comeback, or really hasn’t, or how impressions of the city’s recovery can sharply differ.

Heavily advertised television specials shown on ABC and Fox News skirted the wrong-headed reporting of 10 years ago, if they alluded to it at all.

ABC’s retrospective was broadcast Sunday night and was so sappy and boosterish as to be almost unwatchable.

Fox, which aired its look-back on Friday, was notably rough on Ray Nagin, the incompetent, bloviating mayor of New Orleans 10 years ago. Nagin since has gone to federal prison on corruption convictions unrelated to Katrina.

It’s worth recalling how in the storm’s aftermath, Nagin went on Oprah Winfrey’s program to claim that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing Katrina evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Almost all of those claims were untrue: The mayor was winging it on national television, and smearing his city in the process. The Fox program alluded to some of Nagin’s exaggerations.

An exception to the media’s sidestepping was a segment Saturday on NPR’s On the Media show. The segment noted the flawed reporting, but didn’t much explore why or how it occurred.

In her introduction, co-host Brooke Gladstone said of journalists covering the storm’s aftermath:

“They didn’t always speak fact. While covering Katrina’s horrific aftermath, the media often perpetuated myths about what was going on in the streets and the gathering places for the displaced, like the Superdome in New Orleans.”

The broad effect, of the exaggerated reporting, she said, was to paint “an apocalyptic picture that never matched reality.”

Her observations were a sequeway to an extended conversation with James A. Cobb Jr., the lawyer who won acquittals in 2007 of Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of a nursing home in suburban New Orleans where 35 old people drowned in floodwaters released by the collapsed levees.

The Manganos both were charged with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty.

Before the storm hit, the Manganos had decided it was safer to hunker down and not evacuate their frail and bedridden charges — and they were pilloried by the media when word of the deaths of their elderly charges began to circulate.


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Cronkite report on Vietnam was ‘most influential TV show ever’?

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Television on June 18, 2013 at 10:41 am

The most influential TV show ever?

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

Cronkite in Vietnam, 1968

It’s rather a thumbsucker, but it’s the topic of the “Big Question” feature in the June number of the Atlantic. And the responses, culled from TV executives, producers, and show creators, range from All in the Family, to the Simpson’s, to Saturday Night Light, to Walter Cronkite’s special report about Vietnam.

I always thought All in the Family was grating and repetitive; the Simpson’s predictable, and Saturday Night Light ever-erratic. But the Cronkite report about Vietnam, which aired February 27, 1968?

The most influential?

That’s just wrong. Factually wrong.

The Cronkite program was proposed as “most influential” by John Langley, co-creator of the series Cops, who wrote in explaining his choice:

“Public opinion followed Cronkite’s assessment, leading President Johnson to observe, ‘If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.'”

That assessment includes a couple of important errors, to be addressed in moment.

Some background, first: Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, went to Vietnam in February 1968, shortly after the communist North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies launched a surprisingly extensive but ultimately failed offensive across South Vietnam.

Upon returning to New York, Cronkite prepared a report about Vietnam, describing the U.S. war effort there as “mired in stalemate” and suggesting that negotiations could offer a way out.

In the supposed reactions to Cronkite’s report lurks one the most popular and enduring myths of American journalism.

As Langley writes, American public opinion supposedly followed Cronkite: Americans were swayed, supposedly, by the assessment of someone as trusted as Cronkite, and they likewise turned against the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s special report, knew his war policy was in tatters and purportedly uttered something to the effect of:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

In fact, public opinion had begun turning against the Vietnam War months before the Cronkite program: Cronkite followed rather than precipitated deepening doubts about the wisdom of fighting in Vietnam.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, a plurality of Americans (47 percent) told pollsters for Gallup in October 1967 that sending U.S. troops to Vietnam had been a mistake. That plurality edged upward to 49 percent in a Gallup Poll completed the day of Cronkite’s program about Vietnam.

Journalists, moreover, had detected a softening of popular support for the war.

In December 1967, for example, Don Oberdorfer, a national correspondent for Knight newspapers, reported that the “summer and fall of 1967 [had] been a time of switching, when millions of American voters — along with many religious leaders, editorial writers and elected officials — appeared to be changing their views about the war.”

LBJ: Wasn't watching Cronkite

LBJ: Wasn’t watching Cronkite

As for Johnson, he didn’t see the Cronkite report on Vietnam when it aired. He wasn’t in front a television set that night; he was in Austin, Texas, at a black-tie party marking the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally.

And about the time Cronkite was intoning his pessimistic, “mired in stalemate” editorial comment about the war, Johnson was offering light-hearted remarks about Connally’s age.

“Today, you are 51, John,” the president said. “That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for — a simple majority.”

Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” was an appraisal that was neither stunning nor novel in late February 1968. U.S. news organizations had been invoking “stalemate” to describe the war effort for months before the Cronkite program.

For example, the New York Times asserted in an analysis published August 7, 1967,  that “the war is not going well. Victory is not close at hand.”

The Times analysis, filed from Saigon, further declared:

“‘Stalemate’ is a fighting word in Washington. President Johnson rejects it as a description of the situation in Vietnam. But it is the word used by almost all Americans here, except the top officials, to characterize what is happening.”

The Times’ assessment appeared on its front page, beneath the headline:

Vietnam: The Signs of Stalemate.

While the Atlantic’s “Big Question” had the intended effect of stirring debate and discussion, it wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the rankings issued last year of the “most impactful moments” on U.S. television of the past 50 years. Notably, none of the top 20 was an entertainment program.

The rankings were prepared from a survey conducted by Nielsen and Sony Electronics, and topping that list was coverage of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the reporting of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 and of the O.J. Simpson not-guilty verdicts in 1995.

While dramatic, the Katrina coverage, was no high, heroic moment in American journalism.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, the reporting on TV and in print “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

But few if any of the nightmarish accounts of violence, anarchy, and mayhem proved true.


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No, really: Ray Nagin sought out for advice on hurricane prep

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 28, 2011 at 2:37 am

What a joke.

Nagin in New Orleans

As Hurricane Irene churned toward the East Coast of the United States, MSNBC brought on Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, for insights about storm preparations.

In introducing Nagin, MSNBC anchor Martin Bashir declared:

“Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin joins us to explain what leaders must do to avoid the mistakes that were made six years ago” when Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

Nagin, a preparedness authority?


Not only did Nagin fumble the local response to Hurricane Katrina (remember the yellow school buses, all neatly parked and submerged by flood waters?). He contributed significantly to the terribly misleading notion that in the storm’s aftermath, the city was swept by mayhem and lawlessness.

As I point out in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, Nagin offered up  what proved to be highly exaggerated estimates of Katrina-related deaths in New Orleans.

He said the toll could reach 10,000.

Deaths attributed to the hurricane in Louisiana were a little more than 1,000.

What’s more, I note in Getting It Wrong, “Nagin and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass, were sources for some of the most shocking and exaggerated reports about the disaster.”

During an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s television talk show on September 6, 2005, Nagin said “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing storm evacuees inside the Louisiana Superdome.

Nagin said conditions at the Superdome had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

Nagin was winging it on national television. And smearing his city in the process.

(It deserves noting that Nagin was criticized in a bipartisan Congressional report about the responses to Katrina. The report, issued in 2006 and titled A Failure of Initiative, pointed out that the mayor had “repeated unsubstantiated rumors before the national media, creating an exaggerated image of utter lawlessness.”)

As I note in Getting It Wrong, Nagin’s descriptions “were widely reported — and proved to be almost totally without foundation. In all, six people died in the Superdome during the Katrina aftermath. None of those deaths was related to violent crime.”

Interestingly, Compass was asked months afterward why he had depicted post-Katrina New Orleans as swept by mayhem and terror.

He offered this strange reply:

“I didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up,” he said. “So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”

Compass was forced to resign within a few weeks of his appearance on Oprah. Nagin, though, was reelected in 2006 to a four-year term as mayor. He left office in 2010.

He’s out now with a self-published book, Katrina’s Secrets: Storms after the Storm (Volume I). In it, Nagin stokes the undocumented claims about violence inside the Superdome in the hurricane’s aftermath.

According to an essay written by Brendan McCarthy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and posted at nola.com, Nagin claims in the book to have had “private conversations” with “several” women who said they were raped there.

McCarthy’s post quotes Nagin’s book as stating:

“The political and media spin later claimed that many of the rapes were basically the figment of our collective imagination. This ensured that anyone who was raped would not come forward to face unfair, invasive scrutiny while being forced to defend their credibility.”

McCarthy’s post also quotes Compass’ successor, Warren Riley, as having said in 2010:

“The stories that people had died in the Superdome, that people were being raped — there’s not one iota of evidence to show that anyone was killed or raped in the Dome.”


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Recalling Hearst to bash Murdoch: Superficial and off-target

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 18, 2011 at 12:26 am

Hearst: Murdoch's model?

The fallout from the phone-hacking scandal rocking Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain has prompted unflattering comparisons that the tough old media mogul is but a latter-day reincarnation of William Randolph Hearst, American press lord of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Trouble is, such comparisons are facile and no better than superficial. Hearst, for example, hardly established the international presence that Murdoch commands.

And these off-target comparisons have become an occasion to indulge in the hoary media myth that Hearst and his yellow press fomented the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The Sun Herald newspaper of Mississippi, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2006 for coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the Gulf Coast, did just that in an editorial published over the weekend.

“Not since William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire sensationalized news and gave a distinctive yellow tinge to journalism has the world seen the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Australian/American media lord whose News Corporation has spread its tabloid brand in print and on the airwaves to so many corners of the globe,” the Sun Herald harrumphed in its editorial.

Of Hearst, the Sun Herald further stated:

“His newspapers were so powerful in molding public opinion that they were credited with pushing the United States into war with Spain in 1898.”



As I pointed out in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, critics who blame the yellow press of Hearst (and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer) for bringing on the war invariably fail to explain how the contents of those newspapers came to be transformed into policy and military action.

How did that work? What was the mechanism? Why was the yellow press so singularly powerful at that moment in American history?

In truth, as I’ve noted previously at Media Myth Alert, there was no mechanism by which the newspapers’ contents were translated into policy and a decision to go to war. They were not that powerful.

Had the newspapers of Hearst and Pulitzer brought about the war with Spain, then “researchers should be able to find some hint of, some reference to, that influence in the personal papers and the reminiscences of policymakers of the time,” I wrote in Yellow Journalism, adding:

“But neither the diary entries of Cabinet officers nor the contemporaneous private exchanges among American diplomats indicate that the yellow newspapers exerted any influence at all. When it was discussed within the McKinley administration, the yellow press was dismissed as a nuisance or scoffed at as a complicating factor.”

In short, senior officials in the administration of President William McKinley largely disregarded the content of what was called the yellow press. They did not turn to it for guidance or insight in policymaking.

Their thinking was not shaped by yellow journalism.

A variation of the Murdoch-Hearst criticism is to assail Murdoch — as a commentary  posted yesterday at Huffington Post put it — “the latest prime purveyor of so-called ‘yellow journalism’.”

The author, novelist Terence Clarke, declared that yellow journalism as practiced by Hearst and Pulitzer “sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers.

“It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Now, with Murdoch leading the way, journalism in many instances has fallen victim to the same wish for sales, and has descended, again, from the high ground it should occupy.”

Oh, spare us such superficiality.

The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer was much more than merely sensational.

Anyone who has spent much time reading through their newspapers of the late 19th century invariably comes away impressed with the aggressive and news-oriented approaches they took.

David Nasaw, author of a commendably even-handed biography of Hearst, pointed this out notably well, writing:

“Day after day, Hearst and his staff improved on their product. Their headlines were more provocative than anyone else’s, their drawings more lifelike … the writing throughout the paper outstanding, if, at times, a bit long-winded.”

Not only that, but Hearst was willing to spend lavishly to get the news. He, much more so than Pulitzer, was inclined to tap prominent writers, such as Mark Twain, and pay them well to cover important events for his New York Journal.

Hearst paid $3,000 to the novelist, playwright, and foreign correspondent Richard Harding Davis to spend a month for the Journal in Cuba in early 1897, writing reports about the Cuban rebellion that was the proximate cause of the Spanish-American War.

That sum is the equivalent today of more than $50,000.

Moreover, the yellow press of the late 19th century exerted a lasting and profound influence on American journalism history.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the genre “was much decried but its salient features often were emulated.”

Yellow journalism “was appealing and distinctive in its typography, in its lavish use of illustrations, in its aggressive newsgathering techniques,” I noted, adding:

“To a striking degree, features characteristic of the yellow press live on in American journalism, notably in the colorful layouts that characterize the formerly staid titles that used to disparage the yellow press—titles such as the New York Times and Washington Post.”


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‘Getting It Wrong’ at ‘Reader’s Corner’ tonight

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on June 24, 2011 at 6:02 am

I’ll be discussing my latest book, Getting It Wrong, in a half-hour interview that airs tonight at 7:30 (Eastern) on “Reader’s Corner,” a program of Boise State University public radio, KBSX 91.5 FM.

The host is the university’s president, Bob Kustra, an engaging interviewer who taped the show with me last week.

We discussed a number of the media-driven myths debunked in Getting It Wrong, including, in some detail, the mythical “Cronkite Moment” of 1968.

That was when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite supposedly swung U.S. policy in Vietnam with his on-air assessment that the American military was “mired in stalemate” and that negotiations were a prospective way out of Southeast Asia.

The assessment, I write in Getting It Wrong, “supposedly was so singularly potent that it is has come to be remembered as the ‘Cronkite moment.'”

At the White House, President Lyndon Johnson supposedly watched Cronkite’s program about Vietnam — a special, hour-long report that aired February 27, 1968. Upon hearing Cronkite’s “mired in stalemate” statement, Johnson is said to have leaned over, snapped off the television set, and told an aide or aides:

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Or words to that effect. Versions vary. Markedly.

As I point out in Getting It Wrong, however, Johnson didn’t see the Cronkite report when it aired. The president wasn’t at the White House, either.

He was on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, offering light-hearted banter at the 51st birthday party of Governor John Connally, one of the president’s long-time political allies.

About the time Cronkite intoned his “mired in stalemate” assessment, Johnson was saying this, about Connally’s age:

“Today you are 51, John. That is the magic number that every man of politics prays for—a simple majority.”

It’s difficult to imagine how Johnson was much moved by a show he didn’t see.

Even if the president did watch the Cronkite report at some later date on videotape — and there’s no evidence he did — it’s clear that Johnson did not take the anchorman’s assessment to heart. “Mired in stalemate” was no epiphany for the president.

Indeed, just three days after the Cronkite program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner in Texas that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam.

“We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers….”

I noted in the interview with Kustra, that Cronkite until late in his life pooh-poohed the notion his assessment about Vietnam represented a pivotal moment.

In his memoir published in 1997, Cronkite wrote that his “mired in stalemate” assessment posed for Johnson “just one more straw in the increasing burden of Vietnam.”

But by 2006, three years before his death, Cronkite had come to embrace the conventional interpretation of the presumptive “Cronkite Moment,” saying in an interview with Esquire:

“To be honest, I was rather amazed that my reporting from Vietnam had such an effect on history.”

Among other topics, Kustra and I discussed the hero-journalist myth of Watergate (the notion that the dogged reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency) and the woefully exaggerated reporting that characterized coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans.

I also noted during the interview that Getting It Wrong is best regarded as aligned with the fundamental imperative of newsgathering — that of getting it right, of seeking to obtain the most accurate version of events as possible.


Media myths, the ‘comfort food’ of journalism

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 am

One of my favored characterizations of media-driven myths, those dubious tales about media power that masquerade as factual, is that they’re the “junk food of journalism.”

Not comforting at all

By that I mean they’re tasty and alluring, but not very nutritious, not very healthy.

The “junk food of journalism” is a turn of phrase suggested by an American University graduate student a few years ago. And, crediting him, I included that description in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out almost a year ago.

At a recent Roads Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) program at which I spoke about media myths, a participant offered a variation on “junk food of journalism.”

Media myths, she suggested, also are akin to “comfort food of journalism.”

The comfort food of journalism.

I liked the phrase. Liked it immediately.

Media myths, after all, do tend to offer comfort to journalists, the practitioners of a profession that’s largely unloved.

Tales such as those about the mythical “Cronkite Moment” or the heroic journalists who exposed Watergate make newsgathering seem vital, central, and essential. Those and other tales speak to the potential of journalism to do good, to make a difference.

The tales are indeed much like comfort food.

Seeking reassurance about the relevance of journalism helps explain the myth of superlative reporting that marred the coverage of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in late summer 2005.

The hurricane brought vast flooding to New Orleans, where levees failed.

“In the face of the deepening disaster, federal, state, and city emergency relief efforts proved sluggish, erratic, and stymied, especially in New Orleans,” I write in Getting It Wrong, adding:

“Evidence of government incompetence at all levels was abundant, and became a powerful story. People were suffering in New Orleans, and journalists went after the story vigorously, posing lacerating questions of federal, state, and city authorities: Where was the aid? Why had it not arrived? What was to be done to help the evacuees?”

In the turmoil, traditional news media seemed vital and authoritative. They were “essential again,” as American Journalism Review declared in a cover story both flattering and comforting.

“Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country,” American Journalism Review asserted. “Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.”

It added:

“In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.”

Woah: “reunited the people and the reporters”? Talk about comfort food for the press.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, such self-reverential praise was “more than a little misleading.” The post-Katrina comfort-food story was largely wrong.

The reporting about Katrina’s aftermath was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I note, adding:

“The coverage was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

In the days immediately after Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror supposedly unleashed by the hurricane. Journalists reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center. They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood.

News reports spoke of roving gangs that preyed on tourists and terrorized the occupants of the Superdome. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

None of those reports, as it turned out, was verified or substantiated.

The exaggerated coverage not only delayed the arrival of aid to New Orleans; it impugned a battered city and defamed its residents, depicting them, inaccurately, as having shed all restraint in the face of a disaster.


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The enduring appeal for journalists of the would-be apocalyptic

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Washington Post on May 16, 2011 at 6:54 am

The Wall Street Journal  over the weekend carried an intriguing commentary about the appeal of the apocalyptic, a commentary pegged to predictions of a Christian radio network that Saturday next will mark the end of days.

Terrible, but not apocalyptic

“Why are such apocalyptic prophecies so common in human history? What are their emotional and cognitive underpinnings?” the Journal commentary asked.

“In most doomsday scenarios,” it noted, “destruction is followed by redemption, giving us a sense of both fear and hope. The ostensible ‘end’ is usually seen as a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.”

When posed in a slightly different manner, the question has relevance for journalists: What accounts for the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic that often emerges in the reporting of upheaval and disasters?

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, which came out last year, the perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic helps define and animate such coverage. And it helps explain why news reporting of Hurricane Katrina‘s aftermath in 2005 and of the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was so distorted and exaggerated.

By “perverse appeal of the would-be apocalyptic,” I mean a tendency or eagerness among journalists “to identify and report on trends and developments that seem so exceptional or frightening as to be without precedent.”

This is not to characterize journalists “as morbid or macabre in their newsgathering,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But they respond with undeniable excitement and energy when trends of exceptional and hazardous proportion seem to being taking hold.”

I write in Getting It Wrong that Hurricane Katrina – which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005 – seemed in news reports to have unleashed “a disaster of almost biblical proportion: Storms and floods, death and mayhem; criminal gangs run amok in a city collapsing in chaos. New Orleans seemed to promise a descent into the truly apocalyptic. And for a time the reporting matched that premise: It was as if the some of most dreadful events imaginable were taking place in New Orleans.”

But little of the news media’s apocalyptic-like reporting of mayhem, violence, and anarchy in post-Katrina New Orleans proved true.

The “crack baby” scare, I write in Getting It Wrong, “was a media-driven myth based more on anecdote than solid, sustained research, a myth that had the effect of stigmatizing underprivileged children presumed to have been born damaged and despised as ‘crack babies.’”

The scare was based on the widely reported belief that prenatal exposure to crack cocaine would give rise to a generation of misfits, of children so mentally and physically damaged that they would forever be wards of the state.

Commentators turned to phrases such as “bio-underclass” to characterize the disaster they said lie ahead. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer invoked “bio-underclass” in 1989, declaring in a column in the Washington Post:

“Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.”

To be sure, smoking crack during pregnancy is hardly risk-free: “neither prudent nor sensible,” I write.

However, I note, “the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure have proved more subtle than sweeping.” And biomedical research has found nothing akin to the “bio-underclass” that Krauthammer and others warned about more than 20 years ago.

Revisiting the media-driven myth of the crack baby is important, I argue in Getting It Wrong, because doing so permits “insights into a tendency among journalists to neglect or disregard the tentativeness that characterizes serious scientific and biomedical research.” They seize upon the would-be apocalyptic instead.


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‘Getting It Wrong’ wins SPJ award for Research about Journalism

In Bay of Pigs, Bra-burning, Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Furnish the war, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Murrow-McCarthy myth, New York Times, Spanish-American War, War of the Worlds, Washington Post, Watergate myth, Yellow Journalism on May 10, 2011 at 9:02 am

The Society of Professional Journalists announced today that my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, is the winner of the 2010 Sigma Delta Chi award for Research about Journalism.

The award will be presented in September at the Excellence in Journalism convention in New Orleans.

Getting It Wrong, which was published last year by the University of California Press, debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, which are dubious tales about the news media that masquerade as factual.

Here’s a summary of the 10 myths dismantled in Getting It Wrong:

  1. Remington-Hearst: William Randolph Hearst’s famous vow “to furnish the war” with Spain is almost certainly apocryphal.
  2. War of Worlds: The notion that the War of Worlds radio dramatization in 1938 caused nationwide panic and mass hysteria is exaggerated.
  3. Murrow-McCarthy: Edward R. Murrow’s famous See It Now program in March 1954 did not end Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communists-in-government witch-hunt; Murrow in fact was very late to take on McCarthy.
  4. Bay of Pigs: The New York Times did not suppress its reporting in the run-up to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.
  5. Cronkite-Johnson: Walter Cronkite’s special report on Vietnam in February 1968 did not prompt an immediate reassessment or revision of U.S. war policy.
  6. Bra-burning: Humor columnist Art Buchwald helped spread the notion that feminist demonstrators dramatically burned their bras at a Miss America protest in September 1968.
  7. Watergate: The Washington Post’s intrepid reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, did not bring down Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. That they did is a trope that knows few bounds.
  8. Crack babies: The much-feared “bio-underclass” of children born to women who smoked crack cocaine during their pregnancies never materialized.
  9. Jessica Lynch: The Washington Post’s erroneous reporting about Jessica Lynch early in the Iraq War gave rise to several myths about her capture and rescue.
  10. Hurricane Katrina: News coverage of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in early September 2005 was marred by wild exaggerations about extreme, Mad Max-like violence.

The “Research about Journalism” award recognizes “an investigative study about some aspect of journalism,” SPJ says, and “must be based on original research; either published or unpublished, and must have been completed during the 2010 calendar year. … Judges will consider value to the profession, significance of the subject matter, thoroughness of the research, and soundness of the conclusion.”


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A cautionary note on early coverage of dramatic events

In Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Washington Post on May 3, 2011 at 8:17 am

Amid yesterday’s jubilation about the slaying of terror leader Osama bin Laden, the media critic at slate.com, Jack Shafer, posted a timely and telling reminder that initial news reports of major events seldom are reliable.

This is especially so, I would add, in covering disasters: The early accounts almost always are erroneous.

Got it wrong in New Orleans

The coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, which I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, is instructive: News reports about the surreal violence that the storm supposedly unleashed on New Orleans in late summer 2005 were highly exaggerated and wildly inaccurate.

“Katrina’s aftermath was no high, heroic moment in American journalism,” I write, adding, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. ”

In his column about the coverage of the killing of bin Laden, Shafer noted that “the fog of breaking news almost always cloaks the truth, especially when the deadline news event is a super-top-secret military operation conducted by commandos halfway around the world and the sources of the sexiest information go unnamed.”

He pointed out the wide variance in the early reports about bin Laden’s violent end, noting such discrepancies as these:

  • ABC News: “He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead.”
  • The Atlantic: “One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face.”
  • The London Sun: “Elite troops opened fire when the 9/11 terror chief refused to surrender, hitting him in the head and chest. …”
  • MSNBC.com: “[H]e was shot in the left eye.”

Shafer added: “At some point, after reporters have time to independently report the events behind the raid, we’ll have a verified picture of who did what when instead of the official versions we’re reading and viewing today. Until then, it’s caveat emptor for news consumers.”

Journalists would do well to offer such reminders more frequently than they do.

Cautionary notes ought to be routine, as should specific reference to the challenges of reporting military operations from afar.

Such distance-reporting, after all, can give rise to errors that are both memorable and acutely embarrassingly. The Jessica Lynch case, which unfolded during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003 and which is discussed in Getting It Wrong, is memorable in that regard.

The Washington Post, drawing on sources it has never identified (but should), offered the world a sensational report about the battlefield heroics of Lynch, then a 19-year-old Army supply clerk who never expected to see combat.

Elements of her units fell under ambush in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003.

According to the Post’s front-page article — which was mostly reported by journalists based in Washington — Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in fighting” at Nasiriyah.

The newspaper also said Lynch was “stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position.”

The Post’s sensational report about Lynch was picked up by news outlets around the country and the world. But it was wrong, utterly wrong.

Lynch never fired a shot at Nasiriyah. Her rifle jammed during the ambush. She suffered shattering injuries when a rocket-propelled grenade struck her Humvee, causing the vehicle to crash.

But she was neither shot nor stabbed.

Lynch was taken prisoner and treated at an Iraqi hospital where she lingered near death before being rescued on April 1, 2003, by a U.S. special operations team.

The Post report offers another reminder about covering combat — the passage of time is no guarantee of accuracy in reporting. The sensational account about Lynch appeared on the Post’s front page of April 3, 2003, 11 days after the ambush at Nasiriyah.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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