Thursday, May 25, 2006

Media Coverage of Katrina: A modern-day Roshomon or bias?

Akira Kurosawa's famous film Rashōmon is a masterpiece that delves into the difficulty of getting to the truth of a matter when there are conflicting witness accounts. The film left such an impression that the term Rashomon effect is now used to describe subjectivity of perception when recalling events.

After reading Lou Dilnar's 'Katrina: What the Media Missed' (HT: BizzyBlog via email), the Rashomon effect would be a plausible explanation for the huge disparity in accounts about the rescue effort in New Orleans. But only media bias would account for the record not being corrected.

Key excerpt's from Mr. Dilnar's must read piece:

Remember the dozens, maybe hundreds, of rapes, murders, stabbings and deaths resulting from official neglect at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? The ones that never happened, as even the national media later admitted?

Sure, we all remember the original reporting, if not the back-pedaling.

Here's another one: Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopters landing at the Superdome as soon as Katrina passed, dropping off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running with stretchers, in an echo of M*A*S*H, carrying the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included the Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?

Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional, parenthetical mention in the national media. The National Guard had its headquarters for Katrina, not just a few peacekeeping troops, in what the media portrayed as the pit of Hell. Hell was one of the safest places to be in New Orleans, smelly as it was. The situation was always under control, not surprisingly because the people in control were always there.

...There were problems, true: FEMA melted down. Political leaders, from the Mayor to Governor to the White House, showed "A Failure of Initiative", as a recent House report put it. That report, along with sharply critical studies by the White House and the Senate, delve into the myriad of breakdowns, shortages and miscommunications that hampered relief efforts.

Still, by focusing on the part of the glass that was half-empty, the national media imposed a near total blackout on the nerve center of what may have been the largest, most successful aerial search and rescue operation in history...

...--Why didn't the Guard fly in porta-potties as the crowd at the Dome stewed in its own rich and savory juices? Well, toilets worked through Tuesday afternoon, and by stinky Wednesday, search and rescue missions continued to ramp up and still had the highest conceivable priority. Had helicopters been diverted, people trapped in attics, on rooftops, and in broken-down hospitals would have died. Other apparently brutal behavior, such as ignoring visible corpses scattered around the city, were also seen as a distraction from the main task.

--Many survivors in the Dome complained of food and water shortages, a charge that reverberated through the media echo chamber. According to Maj. Bush, the Guard stuck to strict rationing - one MRE and one liter of water per day, exactly what troops got in combat in Iraq. Because so many victims were being brought in so quickly in an open-ended rescue operation, the Guard wasn't taking any chances of running out of supplies by opening an all-you-can eat buffet. It started out with a 3-day supply for ten thousand people, and ultimately brought in 300,000 MREs and 397,000 liter bottles of water, a 30-day supply for 10,000 people. And as Maj. Bush points out, there wasn't a single death from dehydration - a constant threat to those waiting to be rescued from rooftops and attics in the 100-degree heat and in the steamy atmosphere of the Dome as well.

--Why wasn't the Superdome evacuated sooner? National Guard officials on the scene saw no need for it until Thursday, and they were right. First, all resources at their disposal were, quite correctly, focused on search and rescue and lifesaving, rather than on re-supply and the comfort level of those saved. Had they deployed helicopters for marginal tasks, people still stuck on rooftops or languishing in powerless hospitals would have died. When rescues began to taper off on Thursday, they began to shift resources to evacuation. In other words, they had a plan: rescue, triage, hydrate, evacuate. Not exactly rocket science, but if you leave out the rescue and triage part, as the national media did, the rest makes no sense. The Guard spent the week after Katrina in an exquisite balancing act between the needs of healthy survivors in the Dome, the care of the sick and injured in the Arena, and hauling in the tens of thousands who faced death on rooftops and in attics. Then they could worry about getting the hell out of town.

--Why did the evacuation take so long? The full evacuation proceeded rapidly once it began on Thursday, Maj. Dressler said. Once again, however, the use of the Superdome as a staging area distorted perceptions: Even as the previously rescued were being bused away, more were arriving by helicopter, boat, and under their own power as rescue operations reached a crescendo. The new arrivals delayed the completion of evacuation until well into the weekend...

...FEMA failed miserably. Yet the Coast Guard, a branch of the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security, operated precisely according to plan and saved up to 30,000 lives amid near total destruction. The National Guard Bureau helped run the show. The State Guard and regular military, which owes its extraordinary professionalism to the administration's insistence on training and equipage for service in Iraq, saved tens of thousands more.

That's the real story of Katrina. But the national media isn't about to acknowledge it unless the administration makes its own case, something that, so far at least, it hasn't begun to do.



Blogger Luv2Box said...

This may be one of the best post-Katrina analyses I have read - thanks for the great job! It is hard to believe things really were organized with a clear objective. But that won't make headlines when Cooper Anderson is crying on live TV! Let's just hope we learn from our mistakes this coming hurricane season!

May 26, 2006 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Lola said...

I live in Louisiana very near New Orleans and witnessed much of the devastation myself. So many of the things you pointed out are things I have wanted people to know for so long. The devastation from Hurricane Katrina was so much more than anyone ever would have expected. We also would never have believed so many people would stay behind in New Orleans instead of evacuating when they had the time. Nevertheless, our national guard did an amazing job of working in horrible conditions to save so many lives. This is the biggest credit you could have given them by pointing out that it wasn't all negative - there were some pretty amazing people doing some pretty amazing things. For so long I have watched media bias control what people saw and heard about Hurricane Katrina - thank you for pointing out the truth!

May 29, 2006 at 5:59 PM  

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