Friday, September 30, 2005

American Tsunami IV

After Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, after Memogate and Dan Rather, after any number of missteps over the past three years, the American press came face to face with a new challenge to its primacy and pertinence to the American people. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast one month ago yesterday, it unleashed a tide of young, eager journalists flooding the zone with the best of intentions, or at least the most uniformly competitive of intentions.

What’s emerged since then has occasioned a healthy clash of opinions on what worked right and what didn’t. As stories of this scale often do, they tell as much or more about the storyteller than they do about the subject of the story.

One of the better debates on how well the press handled the Katrina catastrophe was on the “News Hour With Jim Lehrer” this evening. Two of the participants synthesized both sides of an eager, aggressive press knee-deep in the kind of story that awakens their instinct for the fatalistic, the merciful and the bureaucratic. Their comments also illustrated the maddening Rashomon aspect of the press trying to comprehensively get its arms around a story literally exploding in real time as they reported it, an immediacy that yielded sadly astonishing errors that, again, said more about the teller of the tale than the tale being told.

Keith Woods, an editor with the New Orleans Times-Picayune and director of the Poynter Institute, said the blanket coverage of the Katrina disaster and its inescapable human tragedy revealed “a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding that they were not telling an ordinary story – any more than the Sept. 11 attacks were an ordinary story.

“I like the fact that journalism understood the size of this story from the very beginning,” Woods said.

That was one part of the elephant. Hugh Hewitt, however, would have none of it. Hewitt, the founder of hughhewitt.com, a high-profile Web site of commentary, lit into Woods’ argument, and revealed another equally compelling side to the issue.

Hewitt lamented big media’s seeming inability “to dispel the lurid, the hysterical, the salaciousness of the reporting.” And in a smart repudiation of much of the media’s self-congratulations, Hewitt said the Katrina mess revealed “a wholesale collapse of the media’s own levees. They let in all the rumors, all the innuendo, all the first-person stories because they were caught up in their own emotionalism.”

And Hewitt – despite having what feels like the same predisposition toward punitive impulses for the press that’s common among social conservatives today – made maybe the telling point in the debate: journalists’ willingness to suspend the willingness to suspend disbelief.

“They reported panic-inducing, fear-inducing, hysteria-inducing mass-casualty events … the most squalid journalism you could imagine. …”

“People have to ask, why was the media so eager and willing to circulate these stories? Is it because [they] were dealing with the urban underclass, largely black, largely a community with which the elite media does not often deal, and as a result they were willing to believe stories about this community that they might not have given credence to, if it were a different situation?”

One suspects that the truth lies somewhere in the two not-quite extremes of their positions. It’s inescapable that the press, presented in just hours with the story of the year, a vast human drama, tried to hit the ground running on Katrina, saturating the region with reporters covering every vantage point, from the obligatory weather reporter leaning against Category 3 winds to the Gulf Coast embeds who hunkered down for days or weeks to look for the human dimension in depth.

Their zeal for getting the story, though, ran up against the need to get the story right. Stories from Katrina survivors took on a life of their own; gossip became exaggerations became rumors became statements from the mayor himself. The tales that emerged from the Superdome in New Orleans in the desperate hours of the evacuation began to sound like the stuff of a Brueghel painting, armies of the dead consuming the living, entrails aflame, blood running in the exits.

That the reality turned out to be far less apocalyptic raises the question of how such a disconnect between journalistic responsibility and journalists’ actions could happen. That’s the deeper question for reporters and editors going forward: Why report fictional drama, or at least drama you couldn’t verify with your own eyes, as the truth? Since when did journalists take anyone’s word for anything?

There were challenges to covering the Katrina story, a real-time news extravaganza if there ever was one. At one level American media got it: they understood intuitively that what was unfolding on the Gulf Coast was a national story of rare scale and perhaps unprecedented impact. But the media also overplayed its hand, milking a real drama by adding ninth-circle-of-hell innuendo that was unnecessary, and often a case of sloppy reporting that capitalized on the emotions of the moment.

It’s an object lesson for the next time. And there will be a next time.

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