This article appeared as a sidebar in the November/December issue of Extra!
With a dearth of reliable information coming out of flood-ravaged New Orleans, many unsubstantiated accounts of violence and mayhem surged through mainstream media outlets in the first days of the crisis. As the waters receded, some of the sources for these stories seemed as slippery as the post-flood slime that covered the city.
Peggy Hoffman, executive director of the assisted-living facility Bethany Home, for example, claimed in an Associated Press article (8/31/05) that the facility’s evacuation vehicle had been hijacked and its food and water stores looted in the first days of the disaster. Hoffman stated that “we had enough food for 10 days. . . . Now we’ll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot.” (The article misidentified the nursing home as the Covenant Home.) The AP article, in one version or another, was picked up by dozens of dailies throughout the country, including the Chicago Tribune (9/1/05) and USA Today (8/31/05) and broadcast news websites such as ABC (8/31/05), CBS (8/31/05) and Fox News (8/31/05); it was posted or referred to on numerous other websites and blogs, including the white supremacist website DavidDuke.com (9/1/05).
Hoffman’s account was the “looting” shot heard ’round the world, igniting the media frenzy for accounts of violent looting and chaos in the streets. That Hoffman had done so much to provoke these scare stories was forgotten, it seems, when she entered the news again two weeks later in a different Katrina-related context: The New York Times (9/15/05) revealed the nursing home she managed was under scrutiny because “nine of her home’s 49 patients died after she chose not to move them despite the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.” Her story that put the blame for the nursing home’s troubles on carjackers and looters was not reprised—or re-examined—in light of the subsequent revelation.
In another story that helped portray post-hurricane New Orleans as an orgy of violence, New Orleans SWAT team commander Jeff Winn told the New York Times (9/11/05) of officers who “had to storm the [Convention Center] every night” due to “armed groups of men [who] terrorized the others. . . . A number of women had been dragged off by groups of men and gang-raped. . . . Murders were occurring.” According to the article, Winn’s men responded to “muzzle flashes” by “rushing toward them and searching with flashlights for anyone with a gun.”
Winn contended that no suspects were apprehended during the actions due to a lack of detention facilities: “We’d take them into another hall and hope they didn’t make it back.” The story took another form when Police Chief Eddie Compass seemed to include himself in the action in an interview with the Connecticut Post (9/20/05): “People would be shooting at us, and we couldn’t shoot back because of the families. . . . All we could do is rush toward the flash.”
Though thrilling, there was evidence early on that these accounts of nightly heroic police raids into the Convention Center were exaggerated. On September 3, the New York Times had quoted Emily Baker, a hurricane victim who had taken shelter in the Convention Center, who stated that the police came in one night and “took two white people out of here.” “It was our first time seeing the police here,” she told the paper.
The Washington Post (9/15/05) later reported on the same incident, adding that “a Jefferson Parish police deputy” asked Winn and his team to enter the Convention Center and rescue his wife and another female relative, and that “once it became clear that the SWAT team had come with the single goal of rescuing two white women, anger exploded.” Weeks later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune (9/26/05) was the first to report Winn’s admission that “his unit saw muzzle flashes and heard gunshots only one time. Despite aggressively frisking a number of suspects, the team recovered no weapons. His unit never found anyone who had been shot.”
As the New York Times noted, it was difficult to obtain reliable facts in a city without electricity or phone service, but there are no such excuses now. Corporate media would do well to follow up on the sources behind the sensational stories that created the impression of a New Orleans more under siege than under water.