For a brief moment in early September, it looked like the United States was about to have a long-overdue national conversation about race and poverty. While the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans flooded and thousands of poor – and predominantly black – residents waited on rooftops to be rescued or stumbled their way to the Superdome in hope of assistance from the authorities, for once a bright light was focused on discrepancy between the nation’s haves and have-nots. Of course, many of the early reports disappeared into the ether. Thinly sourced reports of the breakdown of civilization inside the Superdome or the Convention Center were found, once the water receded, to be unfounded. On September 26, the New Orleans Times-Picayune blew the doors off many of the more horrific myths about widespread rapes and murders, and reported that the body count was much lower than had originally been expected.
Unfortunately for many in the media, these stories had originally been reported as truth, or at least distinct possibilities, for at least a week after the storm punched its way through the city, which was too bad. Talking heads and bloggers jumped all over the press, bashing news organizations over the head with charges of anti-Bush bias for reporting rumors which made an already horrific situation look worse than it was.
Now, if you get a story wrong, you ought to be called to account, but conservatives used the situation as an attempt to shift blame from the Bush administration’s egregious performance to a game of “blame the media” instead. Perhaps one must admire their courage for this – despite the fact that a CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey conducted September 8-11 found that 77 percent of Americans said the media acted "responsibly" in its coverage of Katrina, while 20 percent felt otherwise. (The numbers are roughly reversed when we examine those for the Bush administration’s handling of the flood and its aftermath.) Some in the conservative media have even gone on the offensive, essentially blaming the victims of the hurricane for being poor. For example, on the September 17 edition of Fox News Watch, Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton said that victims of the hurricane were "whining all the time on TV to get more federal money." Just this past Monday, conservative radio broadcaster Neal Boortz suggested that a victim of Katrina being housed in an Atlanta hotel turn to prostitution, because "it sure beats the hell out of sucking off the taxpayers." According to Media Matters, another conservative radio host, Glenn Beck, expressed his disgust with the victims in New Orleans, saying, "when I saw these people and they had to shut down the Astrodome and lock it down, I thought: I didn't think I could hate victims faster than the 9-11 victims…. Those are the only ones we're seeing on television are the scumbags – and again, it's not all the people in New Orleans. Most of the people in New Orleans got out!"
Never one to be left out of bashing the poor and the downtrodden, on his September 13 radio show, Bill O'Reilly made the wholly unfounded and absurd charge that "many of the poor in New Orleans" did not evacuate the city before Hurricane Katrina because "they were drug-addicted" and "weren't going to get turned off from their source." Most notorious of all perhaps, in this decidedly highly contested competition, was the infamous Charles Murray, who took the opportunity to retread his discredited racist propaganda masquerading as social science. Murray was granted space in the Wall Street Journal, naturally, to propound his argument that these reports demonstrated once again that “behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass.” Perhaps not so surprisingly, some of those very same conservatives who complained the loudest about news organizations publishing rumors of widespread violence and death without fully looking into the facts were guilty of the same crimes. On October 11, USA Today ran a piece rounding up the false reports, and in an odd choice, interviewed John Hinderaker of the far-right blog Powerline. Predictably, he blamed the media for the false reports of rape and murder coming out of New Orleans in those first few days after the levees broke. He said that he was shocked that "news organizations would just pick it up and keep repeating it when there'd really been no basis for it." For much of last September and early October, Powerline gleefully blamed the media for reporting what they were told by city and state officials about the conditions on the ground in New Orleans – conditions that turned out not to be as grave as initially reported.
But look what ran on Powerline on September 2. That day, the blog ran a reader e-mail – without caveat or comment – that hyped the danger New Orleanians faced just as much as any other newspaper or television outlet is purported to have done. In part, the e-mailer said that when their friends left town, "their SUV was mobbed by a huge crowd that tried to pull them out of their car and take it. Brandishing their guns they were able to escape. Along their route out of town they witnessed murders and mounds of bodies lining the streets. Had they not left I doubt they would have survived." Just a few weeks later, on September 26, the same folks at Powerline asked, “How could the mainstream media have done such a poor job in reporting on Hurricane Katrina? It's time for some accountability here." Indeed it is, and as part of that, the rabid conservatives at Powerline might want to include themselves in that "accountability moment." But even as conservatives may have failed in their attempts to discredit the early reports, they could take solace in the media’s short attention span. While the frequently forgotten issues of race and class did make a welcome appearance in our national discourse in the immediate aftermath of the flood, they disappeared with the reappearance of the Louisiana sunlight. The Bush administration’s reconstruction program looks no more competent than FEMA’s emergency plans – and no less ideologically driven. Millions of dollars are being wasted on crony contracts to cruise ships and makeshift shantytowns, almost designed to inspire crime and continued economic hardship for the storm’s victims. But without cascading waters and desperate people literally crying for attention, the cameras are gone and the next disaster awaits.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, just published in paperback.