A version of this article appears in the November/December issue of Extra! Magazine
By September 1, residents of flood-ravaged New Orleans had been trapped for nearly 72 hours in a city with little shelter, food, drinkable water or dry clothing. As much as 80 percent of the city was under water as the Federal Emergency Management Agency seemed unable to respond to the situation. Police and first-responders abandoned their posts, while the National Guard’s efforts were sapped by forces and equipment deployed to Iraq. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer summed up the crisis in the opener to his daily news show, The Situation Room:
Its just after 3 pm in New Orleans, where thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, want to get out right now. They want to get out of the city, but they can’t. The flood waters are there, and there are deadly conditions, including snipers.
Blitzer reiterated this concern about violence throughout the broadcast:
People with guns are opening fire, including on ambulances leaving hospitals…there are still many, many people who are stranded, they can’t get out of their homes, they can’t walk anyplace, A, because its too flooded; B, because its disease-ridden, many of those waters; and C, because its very ugly and violent in many parts of New Orleans.
Preoccupied with broadcasting the bounty of rumors emerging from New Orleans, Blitzer and most corporate news purveyors seemed unable to fulfill one of their primary roles in reporting on the Katrina disaster—that of verifying claims made by sources, whether officials or ordinary people. Responsible, skeptical reporters might have erred on the side of caution, anticipating that a different image of the flooded city would likely emerge once evacuation and rescue procedures finally proceeded.
Indeed, weeks later, the Los Angeles Times (9/27/05) noted that follow-up reporting had discredited most of the wilder reports, including those of pedophilic rape, murder at the Superdome and “roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune (9/26/05), in a story headlined “Rumors of Deaths Greatly Exaggerated,” found an official count of only four violent deaths citywide for the entire flood period—a figure it noted was “typical in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year.”
Similarly, Knight Ridder’s wire service (10/2/05) debunked the seminal stories of sniping at rescue vehicles, reporting that “more than a month later, representatives from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security and Louisiana Air National Guard say they have yet to confirm a single incident of gunfire at helicopters.” The article put to rest the ambulance-shooting mythologies propagated by the likes of Blitzer, observing that the account from which they germinated was mischaracterized to begin with; the ambulance driver who claimed he was prevented from dropping supplies off at a hospital because of armed crowds on its roof “never went to the hospital, turning back after hearing a warning over military radio.”
But such documentation was for the future to take care of. CNN and other corporate media had no time to concern themselves with veracity when there were apocalyptic accounts of “looting” to be disseminated, many of them based on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s frantic description of looters “starting to get closer to heavily populated areas” (AP, 9/1/05). Though much of the actual “loot” being commandeered should have made journalists wary of repeating Nagin’s assertions—disposable diapers were prominently visible in frequently replayed footage—many reporters jumped in feet first.
CNN producer Ben Blake (Lou Dobbs Tonight, 8/31/05) proclaimed New Orleans to be “a city in crisis. . . . The downtown area today around Canal Street has become bedlam” because “looting is widespread.” He expressed bafflement that New Orleans police officers were letting “people take all sorts of things, including shoes that fit them. You can’t take shoes that don’t fit you, but you can take shoes that do fit you.” Blake did not seem to understand why, in a city under as much as 20 feet of heavily contaminated water, dry shoes and clean clothing in general might be considered necessities.
USA Today (9/2/05) similarly reported the opinion of a resident of one of the city’s affluent communities without counterpoint, as she described the stealing of dry shoes as “absurd looting. Shoe boxes are all over the street and old shoes that people had discarded after they’d stolen the new ones.” Unbelievably, the article was headlined, “‘The Looters, They’re Like Cockroaches.’”
Some notable journalistic exceptions, such as ABC’s World News Tonight (9/2/05), did accurately depict the actions of New Orleans residents as desperate attempts to procure food, water and clothing in the absence of federal and local aid. Most mainstream media accounts, however, exaggerated and mischaracterized “looting,” conflating a legally justifiable search for necessities with wanton violence, and giving their new creation of “looting and violence” a prominent role in reports on the dangers of the disaster.
Looting/violence became the reason why “police officers are walking off the job,” and the excuse for New Orleans police who could not or would not help other residents because “they can’t help people who are shooting at them.” (CNN Newsnight, 9/2/05). CNN’s Kitty Pilgrim warned (9/1/05): “Residents choosing to stay in New Orleans tonight are playing a dangerous game with their lives. In the city tonight, there’s looting and lawlessness.”
The Washington Post (9/1/05) reported that “the city grew more desperate as thousands fled on foot, hundreds of residents clambered onto rooftops to escape floodwaters, and looters plundered abandoned stores for food, liquor and guns”—the looters being placed on par with the flood itself as a cause of desperation (and people searching for food being conflated with those seeking alcohol or weapons).
Smoke billowing from a pair of buildings behind him while a split screen showed a convoy of military vehicles rolling across a bridge, Fox News correspondent Steve Harrigan (9/2/05) reported that New Orleans looked like the “Wild West”: “We’ve got guys riding around in pick-ups with automatics drawn.” Harrigan was apparently referring to the police, the only such “guys” visible in the footage. Harrigan, noting the fire in the background, did not attribute it to an act of arson, but this did not stop Fox’s Phil Keating (9/3/05) from characterizing it in exactly that way as he stood before the smoldering buildings and declared that the fire was set “perhaps for no other reason but just for the joy of arson. . . . Clearly it’s a sick joy.”
On September 2, Fox’s David Asman breathlessly reported “a tense standoff in St. Bernard’s Parish, where some 50 to 100 firefighters and their family members are being held hostage. And the situation is that snipers are on the outside of the building. . . . The details are sketchy.” So sketchy that the report was not revisited after that broadcast, nor was it corroborated by any other news source. Regardless, Asman used the fabricated incident as a springboard for claiming “the violence and the looting continues” and labeling New Orleans “a city where looting, murder and rape reign.”
With “looting, murder and rape” posited as one of the gravest dimensions of the disaster, it was not very surprising that mainstream media would emphasize the policing and combat roles of U.S. armed forces and the National Guard, rather than the much more crucial humanitarian assistance they had been deployed to provide. Fox’s David Lee Miller (9/2/05) boasted that the National Guard and other armed forces, arriving days after the humanitarian crisis had reached critical levels, were “highly proficient in the use of lethal force.” Almost as an afterthought, Miller added that troops were also bringing “badly needed supplies.”
Fox’s Rick Leventhal (9/3/05) mentioned a “Marine buddy of mine who I was with in Iraq. . . . So anybody who was wondering where the Marines are, well, the Marines are on their way to New Orleans.” Leventhal lamented, however, that “they are not at this point tasked to put down lawlessness in New Orleans,” but instead would carry out the somehow less important task of “bringing humanitarian relief to people who need it in the New Orleans area . . . though [they] do have, many of them, war experience. A lot of them served in Iraq, these Marines. And they are bringing that experience to the streets of New Orleans.”
During a Today show appearance (NBC, 9/5/05), this characterization of the military as an invading force on a mission to quell a virtual insurgency seemed to catch off guard the National Guard’s Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré—who was under the impression, perhaps, that he might be asked questions pertaining to the Guard’s given role in humanitarian relief. When the show’s Matt Lauer asked Honoré, “What are the rules of engagement for troops in New Orleans dealing with armed people?” Honoré could only respond that “we use the rule of engagement in foreign countries and in desperate situations. . . . In an operation like this, we have rules of self-defense. . . . This is not a city under siege, by no means.”
Still, Lauer pressed the invasion angle: “So in other words, unless they’re threatened, they are not to take aggressive actions.” It remained unclear the kinds of aggressive actions Lauer imagined the National Guard would undertake against American citizens in need of food, water and clothing.
CNN seemed especially intent on riding the wave of military fetishism, its bread and butter for over a decade of U.S.-sponsored conflicts. On Paula Zahn Now (9/14/05), guest Jon Healy of the Los Angeles Times referred to the National Guard’s humanitarian arrival as a “display of force” (9/2/05), while Anderson Cooper (9/14/05) mused, “It always interests me that in any kind of conflict zone, no matter where it is in the world, some people step up and become heroes, and some people . . . become desperate and become monsters.”
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (Situation Room, 9/2/05) excitedly announced, “eight convoys and troops are on the ground at last in a place being described as a lawless, deadly war zone.” Blitzer also introduced correspondents reporting from New Orleans as if they were covering a conflict; “Nic Robertson is normally overseas covering major wars and other disasters. . . . And another one of our veteran foreign correspondents, war correspondents, Karl Penhaul.” Penhaul proceeded to use war lingo to describe the New Orleans situation, referring to police officers airlifted out of the city as “the last men standing at the University of New Orleans campus,” and calling looters “marauders.”
Not to be outdone, CNN’s Deborah Feyerick (9/4/05) extracted several military references from a ride-along with Wendell Shingler, a Department of Homeland Security official who called New Orleans a “war zone” and a “theater of operations,” comparing the evacuation of the city to “the evacuation of Vietnam after the war.” Standing in the muck-lined post-flood streets of the 7th Ward neighborhood, CNN correspondent Jeff Koinange asked (Situation Room, 9/13/05), “It looks like I’m in the middle of a war zone, doesn’t it?” Actually, the scene much more resembled a city recently drained of floodwaters, including the “speed boat . . . right in the middle of a dry street,” a sight rarely associated with urban warfare.
Fox joined in the war-reporting game, with Juliet Huddy (9/2/05) referring to correspondent Rick Leventhal as being “on the front lines of a hot spot right here in our own backyard,” while Bill O’Reilly (9/2/05) introduced “our primo war correspondent” Steve Harrigan.
Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post (9/6/05) wrote in this genre as well, with her “Troops Back from Iraq Find Another War Zone” setting an ominous scene: “Just the smell and feel of a war zone in the city put the soldiers on edge.” The article, subtitled “In New Orleans, ‘It’s Like Baghdad on a Bad Day,’” featured young Guard soldiers boasting, “If we’re out on the streets, we’ll fight back and shoot until we kill them”—though the worst first-hand example of the “violence and looting” that “shocked” the Guard protagonists of Tyson’s article was the sight of “70-year-old women in new Nike high-tops.”
As the floodwaters receded, corporate media were faced with reporting the unsensational reality that New Orleans had been devastated, not by violent looting and murderous mobs, but by a flood and by the ensuing incompetence of local, state and federal authorities that failed to provide humanitarian aid to the largely black and poor city.
As the Washington Post observed days after the hysteria began to die down (9/15/05), National Guard troops were surprised to encounter “virtually no violence” at the Convention Center made infamous by countless unsubstantiated media reports of raped babies and wanton murder. Likewise, on the streets, correspondents such as Nic Robertson (CNN Daybreak, 9/5/05) seemed almost disappointed that “I haven’t been asked to wear a bullet-proof vest” by authorities. While there had been some violence, and looting that could only have been motivated by profit, there were apparently no raping/murdering/looting gangs, nor was there any substantial devastation wrought by violence and looting.
This realization led to absurd exchanges such as this one between Blitzer and correspondent Robertson reporting from New Orleans’ Canal Street (Situation Room, 9/5/05), which offered a perfect critique of the media’s role in the disaster.
Blitzer: What about those shops, those stores, the restaurant behind you, along those streets? Are most of them–have most of them been looted?
Robertson: They haven’t, that’s the very surprising thing.