Storm Of Malpractice

Jonah Goldberg has a must-read piece in NRO today. Two years on, he describes how a devastating hurricane and a near-universal institutional case of BDS caused one of old media's most infamous moments:

Few of us can forget the reports from two years ago. CNN warned that there were “bands of rapists, going block to block.” Snipers were reportedly shooting at medical personnel. Bodies at the Superdome, we were told, were stacked like cordwood. The Washington Post proclaimed in a banner headline that New Orleans was “A City of Despair and Lawlessness” and insisted in an editorial that “looters and carjackers, some of them armed, have run rampant.” Fox News anchor John Gibson said there were “all kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence. Thugs shooting at rescue crews.” These reports actually hindered rescue efforts, as emergency crews wasted valuable time avoiding phantom snipers.TV reporters raced to the bottom to see who could moralistically preen the most. Interviewers transformed into outright scolds of administration officials. Meanwhile, the distortions, exaggerations and flat-out fictions being offered by New Orleans officials were accelerated and amplified by the media echo chamber. Glib predictions of 10,000 dead, and the chief of police’s insistence that there were “little babies getting raped,” swirled around the media like so much free-flowing sewage.

It was as though journalistic skepticism of government officials was reserved for the White House, and everyone else got a free pass.

It was very much a throwback to the most lurid days of America's newspapers during the Hearst-era of yellow journalism. Or as I wrote back in October of 2005:

In 1981, Janet Cooke was a Washington Post reporter who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of an eight year old heroin addict. She was eventually forced to return the prize, when when it was discovered that Cooke cooked the books and invented Jimmy out of whole cloth. (Walter Duranty's Pulitizer is still on the books, incidentally.)Asked about Cooke in an interview, new journalism pioneer Tom Wolfe replied:

It reminded me of when I first went to work on the New York Herald Tribune and they were still laughing over the ship-of-sin scandal from prohibition days. An informant had told the Herald Tribune that there was a ship of sin operating outside of a three-mile limit off of eastern Long Island. On board you could get liquor and dope and sex. So the Tribune sent a reporter out. He didn't find the ship, but he did find a saloon in Montauk, and he phoned in about five days' worth of the most lurid stories in the history of drunk newspapermen. Half of New York City gasped and the other half rushed out to eastern Long Island to rent motor launches, until it was discovered he had made up the whole thing. These things happen about every three or four years; some reporter gets caught piping a story out of his skull...Phony stories are going to be written every once in a while, so long as you give reporters the trust that you have to give them.

Especially when you send them down to New Orleans to report on the aftermath of a hurricane when there's a conservative president in office.

Around that time, Hugh Hewitt told PBS's News Hour:

Well, [Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida] 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 their 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.

And yet, despite all that, as Jonah notes:

During last week’s bonfire of Katrina navel-gazing, there was virtually no mention of the hyperventilating and inaccurate media reports, even though these facts are by now well-established. Terms such as “rape gangs” and “snipers” do not appear in virtually any of the mainstream media’s retrospectives. It’s as if it never happened.Why? I think the answer is complex, but three factors are surely involved. One, the media are often good watchdogs of government but rarely of themselves. While recycling old complaints about government is permissible, dwelling on your colleagues’ failures — or your own — just isn’t done.

Two, the media have convinced themselves that they did a wonderful job of covering Katrina, showering themselves with awards in response. Dan Rather spoke for his colleagues when he said, “Everybody across the board did such a good job.” It was one of the “quintessential great moments in television news ... right there with the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate coverage, you name it.”

One could argue that each of those moments demonstrated fundamentally-flawed coverage on the part of television networks that claimed at the time to be thoroughly objective and unbiased, during an era when the American public still largely believed such journalistic traits were possible.

CBS's Don Hewitt later admitted that through lighting, make-up and camera angles, he gave Kennedy preferential visual treatment in his first, now legendary debate with Nixon. As James Piereson wrote in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, when compared with the facts of the event, the media's biased narrative in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's death was in its own way as muddled as their decades-later Katrina coverage. And television's role in Watergate was largely through the passive airing of static congressional hearings. The real legwork was done by two newspaper reporters who were unknowing patsies of an FBI turf war battle spearheaded by "a disaffected sidekick of J. Edgar Hoover, an old-school G-man embittered at being passed over for the director's job when the big guy keeled over after half-a-century in harness," Mark Steyn wrote in 2005.

Those flawed earlier moments reveal both the big three networks' biases, and in CBS's case, there's a direct line from Don Hewitt giving JFK a friendly video assist to CBS's Dan Rather inventing phony documents to attempt to give a much later JFK his own helpful leg up.

The distributed citizen journalism of the Internet came to national prominence (and earned its nickname) as a result of catching that last imbroglio, but it helped that it was one big easy-to-follow story involving one superstar anchorman, not the thousand tiny cuts of the media's New Orleans debacle.

Of course, Dan Rather still can't understand what—if anything—he did wrong in September of 2004. And as Jonah notes, the rest of his comrades don't believe they made any mistakes a year later. History (and a Cuban-exile) says otherwise about Dan. In the age of the Blogosphere, what will the general public's perception of the legacy mass media during Katrina ultimately be?