Dateline NBC (8/22/10) did a special look back at Hurricane Katrina last weekend in anticipation of the disaster's five-year anniversary. Watching the collage of 2005 footage and Brian Williams' present-day commentary, I was struck by his characterization of the violence:
You know, I've been around a lot of guns and a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of people shooting at people to make dead bodies. But you put them all together and you put it in the United States of America and boy, it gets your attention. You can't shake that….
It was clear already there weren't going to be enough cops. Everywhere we went, every satellite shot, every camera shot, we were at the height of the violence and the looting and the–all the reports of gunplay downtown. Well, who's bathed in the only lights in town? It was us.
The sweltering heat in New Orleans. The more we learn about what this hurricane did, the worse it gets. We had to ask Federal Protection Service guys with automatic weapons to just form a ring and watch our backs while we were doing Dateline NBC one night. We made a decision the French Quarter was no longer safe. Things were getting too dicey and we pulled out to the suburb of Metairie, Louisiana…. I'll be candid. We heard CNN pulled out. That had some influence on our decision. We had no weapons. We don't work that way. That has to separate us as journalists. But it wasn't safe. So here we are driving through town in our rental cars.
State troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street just to tell them, "Don't think of doing a smash and grab and killing this guy for the car." There was no government. There was no semblance. There was no organization. There was no New Orleans for a few days there.
In the days after the levees broke, corporate media outlets were abuzz with stories of looting, rampant murder, snipers shooting at doctors and rescue helicopters, even the raping of babies at the Superdome (stories backed by the local police chief and mayor). But a month later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed (8/26/05) that "most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened"–no babies raped, no snipers, and only four confirmed murders in the entire week following the hurricane, a pretty typical week for New Orleans. (The New York Times four days later (8/29/05) reported six or seven confirmed homicides.) And while "looting" did occur, much of it was for survival in a city where no help–no food, no water–arrived for days.
Unmentioned by Williams was the documented police and white vigilante violence in which at least 11 civilians and possibly many more were shot in the days following the hurricane. Investigative journalist A.C. Thompson, who has done much of the digging on that story, reported yesterday that in the aftermath of Katrina, "an order circulated among New Orleans police authorizing officers to shoot looters."
No doubt the media-stoked hysteria over rampant violence fed into the atmosphere of fear and anarchy that made such policies and shootings possible. Rather than rehash that hysteria, media should be apologizing for the part they played in it.
Somewhat surprisingly, Dateline also replayed this clip from Williams in 2005:
The politics of all this are very simple. If we come out of this crisis and in the next couple of years don't have a national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment, then we, the news media, will have failed by not keeping people's feet to the fire.
So what's the verdict?
Now, about that national conversation I said we should have about all those issues of race and class and poverty and petroleum, whatever happened with that? Well, in the five years since Katrina, America did elect its first African-American president, but our economy remains crippled. And the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put petroleum front and center again as an issue that needs our attention. There is one thing, a great thing that happened in New Orleans, a city that's always been inhabited by both saints and sinners: The Saints won, the Super Bowl, that is, putting New Orleans on top after a long struggle after a bad storm.
Huh? So then the media didn't fail, since Obama was elected president and they've covered the biggest environmental disaster in recent U.S. history? Or they kind of failed because we're in a recession? None of that seems to have a lot to do with media keeping anyone's feet to the fire.