The Common Good
January 2006

Reporting Through the Grapevines

by Danny Duncan Collum | January 2006

What do we believe when all social restraints are off?

We all know that truth is the first casualty of war. And during the flooding of New Orleans in late August and early September, we often heard descriptions of the Crescent City as a war zone. So, as the murky waters from Hurricane Katrina recede, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that much of what we were told during those horrible days simply wasn’t so.

If, like me, you were glued to the tube for much of that horrible week, you knew that armed gangs had the run of the Morial Convention Center. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people were dying in the shelter of last resort at the Louisiana Superdome. Rape, even of children, was rampant. Snipers were firing on rescue helicopters and emergency vehicles.

If all you know is what you see on TV, you still believe those stories. But if you had the determination to stick with the Katrina story all the way through September, as it receded to the back pages, you eventually learned that none of the facts in my second paragraph were true. And even then, if you’re out in the boondocks of a minor media market, you had to wait for the word to seep through via the Internet.

So it was that I didn’t realize how much Katrina rumor and hyperbole had entered the hard news stream until late October, when the online news daily Salon published a detailed accounting by Aaron Kinney. For instance, as Kinney tells it, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a story on Sept. 6 reporting that National Guardsmen had seen 30 or 40 bodies in the convention center’s walk-in freezer. A guardsman was reported to say that one of the bodies was a 7-year-old girl with her throat cut.

As it turned out, only four dead bodies were found inside the convention center, and only one of those was a suspected murder victim. Later the Times-Picayune retraced the story and learned that the guardsmen upon whom the report relied had seen nothing with their own eyes, but were simply passing on talk they had overheard while standing in an emergency workers’ food line. On Sept. 26, the New Orleans paper published a piece correcting this and other false reports.

Stories, later proven false, about mayhem at the convention center had a serious negative impact during the height of the Katrina crisis. These stories became conflated with rumors from the Superdome. These in turn were picked up by residents of the Superdome via radio and helped create panic and disorder in the shelter.

Of all the stories about snipers firing on rescue helicopters in New Orleans, not one has been confirmed to have actually happened. These stories had terrible consequences because, as a result of the sniper reports, rescue flights were postponed, including those for the city’s hospitals. This left gravely ill people out on rooftops in their hospital beds, exposed to the sun, waiting for help to arrive.

Much of the confusion during Katrina was inevitable and understandable. Reporters were working without access to telephones. Reporters couldn’t call up the police information officer to get a confirmation on a rape report, so the ones who were doing their job had to try to get multiple corroborating sources and, in the end, use their judgment about what was credible.

Still the question remains: How did so much of it get out? And why was it believed so readily?

As the Times-Picayune’s editor, Jim Amoss, has acknowledged, the race of the people left behind in New Orleans undoubtedly played a role in how the story was reported and perceived outside that city.

Tales of black male criminality and super-carnality have been the stock and trade of white supremacist myth-mongering for centuries. The fear of the black man unleashed to take revenge upon his oppressor—especially by violating white women—has haunted white America’s unconscious mind at least since the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, and probably longer. It has to be admitted that an ugly part of white American minds, one that is often buried deep below conscious knowledge, was ready to believe that, when all social restraints were off (as they were in New Orleans), black people would behave as savages.

The facts are that they didn’t. But it will take more than facts to kill a myth this strong.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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