Katrina Media Coverage
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CORRESPONDENT: In a major American city some fifteen to twenty thousand survivors seeking help and a way out found neither. No water, food’s scarce, and now chaos is rampant.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was the biggest domestic news story of the year: Hurricane Katrina and the flooding and destruction of a major American city. Reporters swarmed into the area –
REPORTER: Where are you guys going?
MAN: We have nowhere to go. I’m lost.
JEFFREY BROWN: — providing non- stop, often gripping reports -
CORRESPONDENT: The rescue effort does continue -
JEFFREY BROWN: — and at times seeming ahead of officials about what was actually happening.
SHEPARD SMITH: What are you going to do with all these people? When is help coming for these people? Is there going to be help? I mean, they’re very thirsty. Do you have any idea yet? Nothing?
JEFFREY BROWN: Journalists, in fact, focused much of their coverage on the lack of response to the disaster and aggressively challenged public officials.
TIM RUSSERT : You say, pre-staged, people are sent to the convention center there was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning.
TED KOPPEL: You just found out about it today. Don’t you guys watch television; don’t you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today.
JEFFREY BROWN: There was also intense focus on alleged violence and mayhem in the city.
CORRESPONDENT: All kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence, thugs shooting at rescue crews.
JEFFREY BROWN: Reporters talked to people they said were eyewitnesses to atrocities inside the Superdome and convention center.
RAYMOND COOPER: You got these young teenage boys running around up here raping these girls.
JEFFREY BROWN: Public officials also spoke on television about the violence.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days –
JEFFREY BROWN: Estimates of the number of dead soared.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: — watching hooligans killing people, raping people.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN: We are just now starting to get a clear picture of the massive disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. But even as we speak a much grimmer task is also underway: Recovering bodies of the victims. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin now says as many as 10,000 people may have died in that storm or its aftermath.
JEFFREY BROWN: But in recent days, many of these accounts have been called into question. While there was violence and great suffering in the city, it now appears that many of the most alarming reports may have been more the product of rumor than known fact.
LT. COL. JACQUES THIBODEAUX: I’ve heard of situations and rumors of rapes and murders and complete lawlessness in both the Superdome and the convention center. And I can tell you that I was at both those locations, and those are just false. Those things didn’t happen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, Louisiana’s medical incident commander said that the official death toll stands at near 900, but autopsies have been performed on only about 100 of the bodies. So far, he said, six or seven deaths appear to have been the result of homicide.
JEFFREY BROWN: We discuss the issues raised in the Katrina coverage now with Carl Quintanilla, correspondent for NBC News who started covering Katrina in New Orleans the night before the storm and stayed with the story 13 days; Hugh Hewitt, host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show heard in 112 cities and writer of an online blog on the media and other issues; and Keith Woods, former newspaper reporter and editor at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans; he’s now dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida. Welcome to you all.
Carl Quintanilla, you were there, how did you know or could you know that you reporting was correct?
CARL QUINTANILLA: By looking with my own eyes. That was pretty much the farthest distance we could go. We realized that our satellite phones, it was a challenge simply to call New York so we certainly weren’t going to be able the call our sources the way we would with a normal story. And so we were only able to point our cameras in any direction, write down what we saw, and a lot of that resulted in what was I think a larger proportion of first-person reporting than we’ve seen with any domestic story in a very long time.
JEFFREY BROWN: So how do you respond now to reports that many things that look like facts turn out to be more rumor?
CARL QUINTANILLA: It’s not a surprise to me at all. In my own reporting there, I can’t recall a situation or a story in which I tried harder to couch what we were saying inasmuch uncertainty as we could, telling people, these are reports that are coming from authority figures, people who you normally quote without question in regular everyday stories, fires, police stories and so forth.
It seemed like with every live shot we were trying to tell people this is what we’re hearing but it’s not what we’re seeing. And obviously the premium is on what you can see, not on what you are hearing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Keith Woods in terms of telling the whole story, what did you like and what did you dislike?
KEITH WOODS: Well, I did like the aggressiveness of the journalists throughout, I liked the fact that for a good part of this reporting the journalists brought themselves to the reporting a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding that they were not telling an ordinary story any more than the Sept. 11 attacks were an ordinary story. So I like the fact that journalism understood the size of this story from the very beginning and brought to bear the kinds of resources and the kind of passion in the coverage that we saw.
JEFFREY BROWN: What troubled you about the coverage?
KEITH WOODS: Well, as we probably already gone over quite a bit in the industry, a lot of the coverage of the looting that focused so much on material things in many cases at a time when human life was still at risk, a lot of the reporting that seemed to focus I think on things that were beside the point at a time when in the city of New Orleans, in the southeastern part of the state and in the Gulf — in the Gulf Coast communities, you had much more important things to be talking about than whether someone was stealing a television set or not.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Hewitt, same question, what did you like and what did you dislike?
HUGH HEWITT: Well, Keith just said they did not report an ordinary story; in fact they were reporting lies. The central part of this story, what went on at the convention center and the Superdome was wrong. American media threw everything they had at this story, all the bureaus, all the networks, all the newspapers, everything went to New Orleans, and yet they could not get inside the convention center, they could not get inside the Superdome to dispel the lurid, the hysterical, the salaciousness of the reporting.
I have in mind especially the throat-slashed seven-year-old girl who had been gang-raped at the convention center — didn’t happen. In fact, there were no rapes at the convention center or the Superdome that have yet been corroborated in any way.
There weren’t stacks of bodies in the freezer. But America was riveted by this reporting, wholesale collapse of the media’s own levees they let in all the rumors, and all the innuendo, all the first-person story because they were caught up in this own emotionalism. Exactly what Keith was praising I think led to one of the worst weeks of reporting in the history of American media, and it raises this question: If all of that amount of resources was given over to this story and they got it wrong, how can we trust American media in a place far away like Iraq where they don’t speak the language, where there is an insurgency, and I think the question comes back we really can’t.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Woods, why don’t I go back to you let you respond to that from what you saw.
KEITH WOODS: Well, remember that we thought 5,000 people died in the twin towers in New York originally — more than 5,000. We thought the White House had been attacked in the early reporting of that story. The kind of reporting that journalists have to do during this time is revisionist. You have to keep telling the story until you get it right.
Journalism I think can be forgiven in this case for believing a police chief when he says something under those circumstances, for believing a mayor when he says something under those circumstances, and for simply giving the American public access to people who are living with their living.
And one more point here, it was horrible in the Superdome; it was horrible in the convention center. We got some facts wrong and that’s important. But don’t lose sight of the fact that in the end they were in fact telling a story about a tragedy unfolding in both of those places that was horrible by any measure.
JEFFREY BROWN: Carl Quintanilla, I’m not going to ask you to respond for all the work of journalists down there but from your perspective being down there, give us a flavor of the difficulties that address some of the issues that have been raised here.
CARL QUINTANILLA: Well, I think it’s important to remember that we went down there to cover a hurricane — not to watch the drowning of one of our most historic cities. Our concern when we got on the ground, my crew was actually working this camera right now, was that we had enough gasoline, was that we had enough bottled water, that we had rain gear for what we thought would play out to be a pretty standard although severe hurricane over the next 48 maybe 72 hours.
The fact that we did not have the — by we, I mean the media, not NBC – the fact that we didn’t have the resources to plow every square inch of the convention center or the Superdome is simply a matter of the fact that we were trying to cover the entire Gulf coast.
We did have photographers at the convention center. I stood outside there; we had reporters make their way inside. And when we went up to people and we said, have you heard these reports of people being raped, in many cases they said, oh, yes, absolutely. It’s happening right here. We’ve seen it happen.
And one of our reporters, I’ll never forget said to one woman, really, you’ve seen this; can you take me to the woman who has been raped? She said, absolutely. He said, can you take me to her right now? The woman said, oh, well, I actually heard this story from someone else.
We knew the whole time that information out there, the flow of information was incredibly difficult. And at least from where we stood we did our best to make people understand that everything we were getting came with extreme difficulty and with extreme skepticism.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Hewitt, what about another issue that Mr. Woods raised, that’s the aggressiveness of the reporters, the passion that they brought to the story, do you think that that was useful in pushing officials to respond?
HUGH HEWITT: No. Absolutely not. In fact I think that some of the journalists involved especially anchors became so caught up in their own persona and their own celebrity they missed important and obvious stories.
They failed to report on the basic issues surrounding who deploys the National Guard; they failed to report on why the Salvation Army and the Red Cross were forbidden by state officials to deliver supplies to the Superdome and the convention center. They failed to report what happened to the buses; they failed to establish a chronology — so addicted did they become to the idea that at last, after two years of media collapse – I mean, we go back to Jayson Blair and Rather-gate and Eason Jordan — it’s been terrible two years for the American media.
They finally had something in which they could appear quasi heroic, and they tried very hard to appear quasi heroic, and in so doing they botched the story. And I just have to object to my fellow guest here, it wasn’t that they missed things; there were sins of omission, it’s that they reported panic inducing, fear inducing, hysteria inducing mass sort of casualty events, looting, pillaging, murder sprees, sort of the most squalid journalism you could imagine, and I have to ask them and ask the media generally, don’t we have to go back and find out how to guard against this sort of thing, because we’ve had mass disasters in the past, we’re going to have them in the future — if media becomes addicted it to — they told me it was so I’ll put it out there — that’s terrible for democracy to have a media that is willing to suspend their disbelief and report urban myth.
And I think one other thing, Jeff, people have to ask: Why was the media so eager and willing to circulate these stories? Is it because we were dealing with the urban under class, largely black, and largely a community with which the elite media does not often deal? And as a result they were willing to believe stories about this community that they might not have given any credence to in a different situation.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Keith Woods, what lessons would you draw from what we saw on the coverage of Katrina?
KEITH WOODS: Well, the single lesson that I would draw that the functional question for journalism during times like this is: How do you know that? You keep asking the question, but you keep allowing people to speak.
I want to speak very directly to this question of whether we believe this because people involved were black and many poor. The fact of the matter is that there are many things I would never have believed until someone crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center. And there were many things I wouldn’t have believed until I saw the city of New Orleans underwater and the federal government and local government and police departments collapsing under the weight of that water.
So what I believe at this point is open to question every day. I’m perfectly willing to believe that in a city that was beset with the kind of crime that New Orleans was before this happened, that that kind of crime might be going on in the Superdome or the convention center, why not believe that?
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Carl Quintanilla, what lesson do you take from all of this?
CARL QUINTANILLA: Well, the lesson I think is that there is never going to be any end to Monday morning quarterbacking when it comes to the media. And that’s a good thing. I think it’s a good thing we’re asking all these questions; I think it’s a good thing we’re being challenged like we’re being challenged on this panel.
The bottom line, though, is that the media — often television — is about the flow of real-time information. We were getting information from figures of authority with their own estimates. We weren’t making this up certainly. I think interestingly in Katrina we saw the entire rainbow of human emotion, of human behavior; we saw people doing heroic things and we saw people doing rather sinister things.
And I think you’re going to find as broad a spectrum when it comes to the media, we saw people I think less careful with their facts than they could have been and we saw others very disciplined. So I’m sure it’s very easy to generalize and talk broadly about what the media did right or wrong, but this is as messy and as complicated a system as hurricanes themselves.
And we can find plenty of argue arguments for things the media did right and what they did poorly.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Carl Quintanilla, Keith Woods, and Hugh Hewitt, thank you will all three very much.