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August 30, 2006

Skewed Perspectives of the We Hate Mainstream Media Club


So we now come upon the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most calamitous natural disaster in U.S. history. Thousands died, tens of thousands lost their homes, a major American city was damaged possibly irreparably, and Americans lost the confidence that any level of their government would be there for them in the event of a major emergency.


But if you ask certain conservative pundits, the worst thing of all about Katrina was that the media totally misreported it. A columnist named Lorie Byrd wrote earlier this month that on the hurricane’s anniversary: “There should be plenty of discussion about what Katrina revealed about race and poverty in America… what I would like, but don’t expect to see, however, are exposes of the failures in reporting the story and some explanations of how such failures could occur.”


Jonah Goldberg wrote a National Review column in May in which he took it as a given that the media’s “mishandling of Katrina” was more of a problem than President Bush’s “mishandling of Katrina.” “It is difficult to think of a bigger media scandal in my lifetime than the fraudulently inaccurate coverage of Hurricane Katrina,” Goldberg wrote.


As part of a symposium at the end of 2005 on the question of what was the biggest story of the year, radio host Michael Medved chose “the crash of confidence in media,” adding that “Hurricane Katrina highlighted the biggest story of 2005 - but that story had nothing to do with flooding or destruction.”


Medved is wrong. Hurricane Katrina didn’t highlight the biggest story of 2005. Hurricane Katrina was the biggest story of 2005.


I’m not denying that reporters covering Katrina made some mistakes. They reported a lot of things that government officials told them that turned out to be wrong. They were covering an unprecedented, nightmare scenario for which none of them had ever prepared, and as a result mistakes were certainly made.  


But whatever mistakes the media made in their Katrina coverage pale in comparison, significance-wise, to the hurricane itself and the many people it killed. The deaths of thousands of people, many of which could likely have been prevented, are worthy of genuine outrage. The mistakes of a few reporters are worthy of some outrage, but much, much, much less than the deaths.


No, babies were not raped in the Superdome, as Mayor Ray Nagin told reporters. There did not appear to be any “bands of rapists, going block to block,” as Paula Zahn said on CNN. And initial estimates of casualties were considerably higher than the actual numbers (this happened with the 9/11 attacks, as well).


But even accepting all of that, the fact remains that thousands of people really did die, even more people than that really did lose their homes, and a major U.S. city, full of history, culture and people, really will never be the same again. The government really did bungle the situation beyond any reason, whether at the local, state or federal level. And all of this is considerably more important and considerably more worthy of attention - and anger - than a few screwups by reporters.  


And, aside from being beside the point, the media-screwed-up-Katrina narrative is full of holes. In fact, a whole lot of great reporting came from the hurricane and its immediate aftermath. The New Orleans Times-Picayune won multiple Pulitzer Prizes, all of them richly deserved, for publishing amazing work for several months (on the website without the benefit of an actual newsroom. Reporters from all over brought the hurricane story into America’s homes, and most of the time did a decent job of conveying the abject horror of what happened in New Orleans and elsewhere.


For people who don’t like academia generally and postmodernism specifically, the media-bashing right seems to have embraced their inner Foucault.  No event these days is ever quite as important as its media coverage. And to these people, liberal media bias is in every closet and under every bed, and works as an ever-present Theory of Everything. It’s the same attitude that says the most immoral thing about the Abu Ghraib scandal was that the New York Times put it on the front page too many times.


Sometimes, the press is going to make mistakes and get stories wrong. And when they do – or even when they don’t – we can always count on the We Hate Mainstream Media Club to club them over the head. But it’s necessary to keep perspective, because life and death issues are important – much more important than whatever it is the media says about them.

© 2006 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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