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September 13, 2005

RICK STUART:

So far incredible news from Katrina, the dead body count is really low compared to the numbers in the thousands we heard about.

So how did the media get the number and keep putting it out?

Good question. This should be a major media embarrassment:

The city braced for more grim discoveries as the receding waters allowed search parties to reach isolated buildings. But the death toll -- 279 for Louisiana -- was still far below the initial prediction of the city's mayor that 10,000 perished.

"It's hot. It smells. But most of the houses we are looking at are empty," Oregon National Guard Staff Sgt. James Lindseth, 33, said as his platoon, inspecting for people dead or alive, worked its way through dank and broken homes that had been in the water a few days ago.

So they were off by 9700, so far. That's good news, but it's also reason to take other things they tell us with many grains of salt.

UPDATE: Reader Ryan Booth emails:

Mayor Nagin was the one to put forward the 10,000 number. It may have been irresponsible for him to do so, but surely it isn't the MSM's fault for repeating that number. If I were a reporter, I'd figure that the mayor would probably be in a better position to know than anyone else.

Well, that's hardly been his record, but . . . .

Meanwhile, another reader emails: "Don't you know why the body count in NO is so low? It is because of cannibalism my friend. Don't you read the Huffington Post? ;-)"

I blame the Klingons.

But here's the kind of critical assessment that we didn't see enough of last week:

Officialdom abhors a numbers vacuum, and several elected officials have begun to speculate publicly about the death toll. Asked on NBC's "Today" how many might have died, Mr. Nagin said Monday that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000." (On Thursday, he had said in a radio interview that 1,000 had died and 1,000 more were dying every day.) That echoed a statement Friday by U.S. Senator David Vitter: "My guess is that it will start at 10,000, but that is only a guess."

Educated guessing is an entirely understandable response, and it may help brace the public for the actual number. But that number could be very different.

"There's plenty of speculation. There's a thousand numbers out there, to say the least," Trooper Johnnie Brown, a spokesman for the Louisiana state police, told me on Sunday. I asked if any of the death counts were official numbers. "An official may have said it, but there has been no count," he said. He emphasized that more important work remained to be done: "We don't have anyone who can sit there and be a counter."

Read the whole thing. We don't know, of course, but it's interesting the way that a number -- based on basically nothing -- got set in concrete so fast.

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