NEWS COVERAGE LOSERS

By Mona Charen, nationally syndicated columnist
Dec 27, 2005, The Washington Times.

Reviewing the falsehoods, myths and misrepresentations spun by the press, politicians and pundits after Hurricane Katrina, one is reminded of Nora Ephron's bon mot: “No matter how cynical I get, I can't seem to keep up.”

Most recently, we have word from the National Hurricane Center that Katrina was not a category 4 storm at all, but rather, a category 3 when it slammed into the Gulf Coast Aug. 29. So much for the notion the levees were built to withstand anything less than a category 4.

This is only the latest in a string of stories correcting, amending and often reversing what we were told at the time. The string is so long the fabric of Katrina reporting has unraveled utterly. It's enough to encourage caution, if not outright cynicism, about all reporting, particularly during emergencies.

In the hours and days after the hurricane struck, the press reported conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center had descended to Boschian (Hieronymous) depravity. We were told “little babies” were being raped, and that stabbings and murders were widespread. The mayor and police chief of New Orleans repeated these rumors on television, thus transforming them from scuttlebutt to “news.”

FEMA, believing the stories broadcast worldwide, showed up at the Convention Center with a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies. They were expecting, reported the Seattle Times, at least 200. How many actually died in the two locations? Six. One died of a drug overdose, another committed suicide and four more died of natural causes.

Eddie Compass, New Orleans police chief, conceded that badly needed resources, like police and rescue workers, were diverted to deal with emergencies that proved nonexistent.

Another popular convention of the Katrina aftermath was the notion that because National Guard troops were “spread thin” by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. lacked manpower to deal with a domestic crisis. But as James Robbins noted in National Review Online, only 10.2 percent of the U.S. Army, including guard and reserves, is stationed in Iraq — fully 74.2 percent are stationed in the United States.

If people are sure of anything, it is that poor African-Americans were hardest hit by the storm and its aftermath. There is no question poor blacks suffered terribly, but according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Louisiana data, those who died came from rich and poor neighborhoods in about equal numbers.

We were told that if federal officials had invested in strengthening the levees around New Orleans, the disaster could have been averted. But as The Washington Post has reported, Louisiana has actually received more money over the last five years for Army Corps of Engineers projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion. California, with a population sevenfold larger, received $1.4 billion.

Katrina was a monster, and the misery it caused was heartbreaking. But the instant analysis was beyond tendentious. We were told poor people died or suffered because they had no way to escape the storm and were offered none by local, state or federal officials (most of the press reserved its severest scorn for the federal response). But according to a careful examination of actual storm victims by the New York Times, most of those who stayed behind either owned cars or were offered rides by others and chose, for a various reasons (some good, some stupid), to remain.

Now comes the next deluge: the cash that will rain down on New Orleans and the surrounding area. Louisiana lawmakers have demanded $250 billion in aid. Karl Zinsmeister estimates this is the equivalent of handing each Louisianan a check for $56,000. This is on top of whatever insurance reimbursements and charitable contributions hurricane victims receive.

In the last days before Christmas, Congress worked on legislation to spend $29 billion on levee repair, new pumping stations and various other services to Louisiana residents. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, called it a “down payment.”

All this spending will go to the most corrupt state in the nation, doubtless primarily to the good friends of politicians. This public policy miscarriage will be due entirely to myths.

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