The Media's Shameful Reporting of Hurricane Katrina
by Kimberley Jane Wilson
Irresponsible. Overwrought. Appalling.
I'm not referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina. I'm talking about the way print and television media covered the hurricane's aftermath.
Americans were told that life in the Superdome and New Orleans's Ernest N. Morial Convention Center quickly descended into an inferno of violence. Author and activist Randall Robinson went so far as to write that black folks in the Big Easy were reduced to cannibalism after just four days. To his credit, Robinson backed off from the ridiculous and sensational statement almost immediately.
Other stories were equally stunning. According to one report, the body of a seven-year-old girl with her throat cut was found at the Superdome. Another said that a 14-year-old girl was raped for hours in the Superdome while other evacuees were apparently too cowed or too oblivious to do anything about it. Men in the hurricane shelters had allegedly gone on raping sprees. There were even claims that babies were raped and murdered.
What was the seven-year-old's name? Did anyone try to find out? Why haven't the parents of the 14-year-old come forward for their "Oprah moment" in front of the cameras?
I haven't seen a single name in print of anyone who made a formal rape complaint to the police. The mainstream media told us there were piles of battered and mutilated bodies at the hurricane shelters, but only ten bodies were later found at the Superdome and only four at the Convention Center. None belonged to a little girl. Every death is a tragedy, of course, but fourteen bodies is a long way from the hundreds of corpses that allegedly piled up.
Some troublesome reports, however, were absolutely true. Things got out of hand - looting was widespread, gunshots were fired, tempers flared and fists flew. Homeowners who decided to ride out the hurricane later had some tense encounters with bands of roving thugs. But much of what the media wrote and reported on TV was the stuff of urban legends. They were nothing more than tall tales and flat-out lies.
How did this happen? What made supposedly sophisticated journalists swallow a bunch of ugly rumors and regurgitate them to the public as facts? Why were they willing to believe that New Orleans's poor black citizens were only half a step above savages?
Numerous magazine and newspaper editorials waxed that post-Katrina America needs to have a conversation about race. Actually, the conversation has been going on behind closed doors for decades. The trouble is, as far as the media are concerned, the conversation isn't going how they'd prefer to go.
Let's be honest. This isn't 1912, or even 1965. If a white person attempted to treat me the way my grandmother was routinely treated when she was my age, the offender would immediately be censured and shunned. If it happened at work, they would be fired and their behavior roundly criticized.
Americans of all races, creeds and tax brackets have sent millions of dollars for Katrina relief. They are feeding, clothing and comforting evacuees in their shelters, in their churches, in their schools and even in their homes.
The story of Hurricane Katrina does not boil down to nationwide indifference to poor blacks. The American public has nothing to be ashamed of. It's another story with regard to the mainstream media. Something distasteful oozed out of New Orleans in Katrina's wake, but it wasn't from FEMA, the black population or toxic floodwaters. So-called professional journalists did a pathetic job reporting the story.
So far, no one in the media has been disciplined - much less fired - and not one newspaper or magazine that ran these urban legends has apologized.
That's not good enough.
Kimberley Jane Wilson is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and a freelance writer in Northern Virginia. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.
Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research.
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