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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Facts Drown In Press Coverage

Posted 8/29/2006

Media: With the one-year anniversary of Katrina behind us, the media-fed myth that New Orleans was destroyed due to federal negligence has congealed in the public's mind. It's not true.

We're not saying the U.S. government — especially FEMA — covered itself in glory after the hurricane. It didn't, and we're not making excuses.

But there's a big difference between the near-criminal negligence implied by media coverage over the past year and the real story of the effort to clean up and save lives after an unexpected natural disaster.

Looking at the media coverage of the anniversary Tuesday, it seems people are still trying to fix blame.

Appearing on NBC, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown blamed higher-ups for the inadequate federal response. Specifically, he pointed a finger at President Bush and Michael Chertoff, homeland security chief.

Brown's self-serving comments aren't true. He's the one who headed FEMA — not Bush or Chertoff. His comment that he was "low man on the totem pole" is pathetic. As so many other things said over the past year, it was uttered without the media challenging its veracity. Why? The statement impugned Bush.

That's not surprising. For the media, Katrina always was more about politics and mythmaking than about reporting and telling the truth. Katrina became a part of a long story line spun relentlessly by the press, of White House ineptitude in the face of disaster and lack of concern for the poor.

As part of this, the media got caught up in telling some big fibs or exaggerating some events while ignoring others.

Take the idea that the federal response was "inadequate" or "incompetent." Granted, that might be said of some of FEMA's efforts, which were poor. But a big story that never got told was how heroically the National Guard (and Coast Guard) performed before, during and after the storm, saving tens of thousands of lives. The mainstream media basically ignored this.

As reported, the Guard had 2,500 troops in New Orleans during the hurricane. It pre-positioned thousands of liters of water, ready-to-eat meals and other supplies at the Superdome and around the city. The Guard was ready.

Right after the storm hit, Guard troops embarked on one of the largest relief efforts. It included, as a Guard spokesman put it, "10,244 sorties flown, 88,181 passengers moved, 18,834 cargo tons hauled (and) 17,411 saves (of stranded and endangered victims)" by helicopter.

The Guard had more than 200 boats and 150 copters working. Its makeshift medical center at the Superdome handled 5,000 patients and delivered seven babies.

By some estimates, the Guard saved 50,000 lives — maybe more. If a big deal was made of this, we didn't hear about it. We had to search out this information on blogs and through government Web sites. It should have been splashed across TV screens and the front pages of our nation's media. It was a truly heroic moment.

What did we get instead? A lot of false tales, half-myths, rumors and innuendo retailed as news, including:
• Speculation that 100,000 people would die (actually, about 1,300 did, which is bad enough).

• Rumors of dozens of bodies stacked in freezers, killings and rapes of babies in the Superdome (out of thousands there, just six people died, four of natural causes).

• Reports of people shooting at rescue helicopters (that never happened, the Guard says).

• Stories playing up the racial-victim angle. (As a subsequent study showed, African-Americans had fewer Katrina deaths than other groups, based on population.)

• Repeated claims the federal response was "slow." (As the Gateway Pundit blog noted, "The federal response here was faster than (Hurricane) Hugo, faster than Andrew, faster than Iniki, faster than Francine and Jeanne.")

We could go on. Days after Hurricane Katrina, the media got caught up in a frenzy of self-congratulation, lauding themselves for their courage and willingness, as some at the time put it, to "speak truth to power."

The real truth is that Katrina wasn't the media's finest hour. As we've seen with recent Mideast coverage, the media have gotten into the strange habit of distorting the news — like reporting deaths of Hezbollah operatives as "civilians" and faking war photographs.

In this, Katrina was no different. Also, much of the coverage was beamed to international audiences hungry for the anti-American meat they were fed. Is it any wonder polls show us falling in foreign esteem worldwide?

Let's make clear that we're not saying no one deserves blame here. Nor are we suggesting that nothing needs to be done to improve our emergency response.

This disaster, however, was years in the making.

Besides, most people, including the media, felt the Crescent City had survived Katrina. If you recall, it was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane before it reached shore, then veered away at the last moment, seemingly sparing New Orleans a direct hit.

Instead, the sea surged, the levees broke and a big part of the city was washed away. The inadequate levees had been in place for decades — a failure, to be sure, but one that spanned many years and multiple presidents, mayors, governors and FEMA leaders.

In short, this was an avoidable tragedy. We should learn from it and fix problems. That might not be easy, though, since many in the media treat Katrina not as a chance to improve a vital part of our homeland security, but as another chance to score debating points against the Bush-led GOP in midterm elections.

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