Katrina spin: If the press got it wrong, did the government do it right?

The right is jumping on stories suggesting that the media overplayed reports of violence in New Orleans.

Published September 28, 2005 3:39PM (EDT)

It's quickly becoming conventional wisdom: The media reporting from Hurricane Katrina was largely false, and conditions in New Orleans weren't nearly as bad as the press made them out to be. The right is gloating about another Rather-gate triumph over the liberal media and saying that it's the press, not the federal government, that ought to be investigated. At the National Review Online, Fox News contributor John Podhoretz says that the media is guilty of "retelling fiction as fact." Rush Limbaugh says the press is still spreading false stories about Katrina with the "express purpose" of dividing the nation. And bloggers like Gateway Pundit -- proudly checking in "from the heart of JesusLand" -- are cataloging the "folklore vs. fact" of Katrina.

But before this goes too far, perhaps we should take a look at just what it is that the media got wrong. According to stories in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Los Angeles Times -- the reports on which the "it's the media's fault" meme seems to be built -- the press failed by passing on exaggerated claims about the violence that was occurring in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune says: "As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath have cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know." Building on the Times-Picayune's analysis, the Los Angeles Times reports on conclusions that "newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center."

So the media, oftentimes relying on rumors that spread through overcrowded evacuation centers and were then repeated by government officials, overstated the death toll of the storm and the barbarity of some of its victims. That ought to be good news and vindication for the citizens of New Orleans, who were often made out to be opportunistic looters and savages -- particularly by voices on the right who seemed to think that criminality was the biggest problem facing that city. But what do these reports say about the government's response to Katrina? How do they undercut criticism that the Bush administration cut funding for levee work, that Republican policies have exacerbated the problems of poverty and race, that the president was slow to return from his vacation, that FEMA bungled matters left and right? They don't. They simply don't say anything about those issues at all.

Even Michael Brown's revisionist history on Katrina can't help much on those fronts. As Katrina headed for the Gulf Coast in late August, Brown told CNN that FEMA was "absolutely" ready for the storm, that the agency had "all the manpower and resources we need" and that "President Bush has been a very great supporter of FEMA." As Think Progress notes, Brown had a different story to tell when he appeared before Congress yesterday: He said that the Department of Homeland Security had eliminated items from FEMA budget requests and left the agency stretched thin. "At one point, we were short 500 people in an organization of about 2,500," Brown said. "You do the math. That's pretty significant ... FEMA has suffered from the inability to grow to meet the demands."

At another point during yesterday's hearing, Brown said that he "misspoke" when he told CNN on Sept. 1 that he had just learned that day that thousands of people were waiting for help inside New Orleans' convention center. In fact, he said, he first learned of the convention center problem on Aug. 31. That may suggest that FEMA's information-gathering skills weren't quite as bad as they seemed, but it also suggests that the agency's ability to respond to information once it got it was even worse than previously thought: If Brown first heard about the problems at the convention center on Aug. 31, how is it that meaningful federal help didn't start arriving there until Sept. 2?

The media may not have done its job as well as it should have in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the spinning from the right notwithstanding, that doesn't mean that the federal government acquitted itself very admirably, either.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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