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October 2, 2005

Why We Refused to Spread Lies About Black People After Katrina

Suddenly, a month after Hurricane Katrina passed and the corporate media bought and regurgitated every ridiculous, racist rumor coming out of New Orleans, they quietly admit they were full of crap. The inevitably late round of media culpas -- following four weeks of blind parroting of exaggeration and innuendo -- came on the heals of a New York Times exposé of then more ridiculous stories and their effects (in which they failed to mention their own or anyone else's reporting).

It is bad enough that they were so gullible as to gargle, swallow and repeat every urban myth they heard. Gullibility could almost be forgivable, so long as proper doubt was injected into news coverage. But the fact is, reporters, producers and editors ran roughshod over the rules of their own trade, as they have so many times recently on other subjects (e.g., Iraq) -- they failed to corroborate what they were hearing from biased sources. They reported rumor as established fact, and they failed, almost to a one, to inject any substantial doubt into the stories they relayed.

At TNS, we only reported on the street violence in one article, and very briefly at that, fairly early on. In a story titled "Katrina Survivors Face Cops, Gougers, Scams, 'Gangs'," I tried to put the "roving violence" factor into its proper context, implying that everyone from police to insurance companies may well have posed a greater danger than the mythical hoodlums who at the time of writing were reportedly running New Orleans as the police literally cowered in fear. At the end of the piece, I decided to make note of the tales of violence:

Authorities and eyewitnesses reported incidents involving violence and threats by armed survivors. Unconfirmed reports of gunmen attacking a rescue helicopter, breaking down doors at hospitals and terrorizing a nursing home spread quickly with the help of the local and national news media. Police arrested four alleged looters Tuesday after a shooting incident during which they claimed one of those arrested shot an officer in the head.

Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’s homeland security head, told the AP, "There are gangs of armed men… moving around the city." Countless reports of random and mob violence emerged throughout the day, often by way of blog postings, calls to television and radio news shows, and interviews with reporters on scene.

But some of the more fantastic stories have yet to be verified, and at least one proved to be a rumor. The Times-Picayune debunked a prevalent rumor that a mob of looters had stormed Childrens Hospital. In fact, a hospital official told the paper that it was functioning well and expecting relief, and that debunking the rumor was among the bigger problems it faced Wednesday.

Extensive footage and photographs of the catastrophe’s aftermath reviewed by NewStandard staff depicted few people with weapons and only police threatening or engaging in violence. Instead, it appears that most survivors – at least during daylight hours – are engaged in lawful activities or are helping themselves to abandoned goods nonviolently.

But the corporate media had a different agenda. Rather than advocating for the downtrodden but resiliant survivors of Katrina like we did (and still are), they chose to advocate for the police and the military, and for the white supremacist ideology that makes it so easy to believe that when a bunch of black people are stuck together, the strong will prey on everyone else. They knowingly ignored the real threats and focused on exaggerations.

And despite their endless resources, the corporate media certainly didn't waste any time on stories that showed NOLA's poor as anything but helpless victims or lawless predators, though now it has become clear that in the neighborhoods corporate reporters avoided, mutual aid -- not chaos -- was the order of the day.

Recent admissions notwithstanding, in typical corporate style, the media would prefer to blame government officials for the spreading of falsehoods. As the Houston Chronicle put it today:

Americans are learning that leaders speaking on the victims' behalf often wildly exaggerated the violence and criminality in the storm's aftermath. The damage from these claims reinforced stereotypes, cemented social differences and might have distorted other communities' response to natural disaster.

And herein lies the problem. The same "journalistic" mindset that says reporters should consult politicians about every conceivable issue, regardless of the officials' expertise, led them to believe that if a "leader" like New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagan -- an African-American, no less, and thus certainly incapable of racism against his "own people," right? -- says terrible things are happening... well, that's good enough for the big boys.

To the AP and CNN, that's considered "corroboration." Who cares where, or even if, Nagan heard the details? He must know, he's an "official." The same can be said for the city's recently resigned police chief, regularly used as a source for sexy horror stories. Gee, he couldn't possibly have a motive to exaggerate the problem, or by contrast the heroicism of his underlings, now could he?

Who would have thought that sticking to the highest standards of scrutiny, source vetting, corroboration and so forth would prove in the end to actually maintain integrity? Go figure.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.