By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Who’s irresponsible?

Can the media credibly be accusing of rumor-mongering when the sources for many of the rumors are a major city’s duly elected mayor and his police chief?, the New Orleans Times-Picayune website, has an eye-opening story today showing the murders, gun battles and rapes that allegedly took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina simply never happened.

Trouble is, as the story notes, some of the wildest of those rumors came directly from Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass. The Times-Picayune’s Brian Thevenot and Gordon Russell write:

THEVENOT AND RUSSELL: In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of “babies,” and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of “hundreds of armed gang members” killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, “we couldn’t count.”

The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an “almost animalistic state.”

Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.

We’ve known almost from the beginning that these stories were vastly exaggerated, but the Times-Picayune puts substantially more meat on the bone. And as tempting as it is to whack the media for being irresponsible, it’s hard to imagine why journalists shouldn’t report unconfirmed horror stories when those stories are being told by the city’s top two officials, on the record, to a national television audience.

For an ironic footnote, check out this story from Saturday’s Houston Chronicle on whether there was any Rita-induced chaos: “There have been some burglaries, but ‘is it rampant like it was in New Orleans? Not even close,’ said Sgt. Nate McDuell, spokesman for the Houston Police Department. ‘We don’t have bands of thugs roaming the streets here. The lid is on here.'”

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  1. Michael

    The media is almost always caught in a “catch 22” situation. When should you double-check your sources? When should you just report what they say? How far does a good reporter have to go?The media can often — though rightly, at times — be criticized for reporting rumor and speculation. However, when the sources are law enforcement or gov’t officials, shouldn’t that be enough?It is the vast majority of the time. However, as in this case, you get officials who either spread rumors they’ve heard or have their own agenda, contrary to the public good.Congrats to the Times-Picayune for following up and adding clarity and confirmation to the earlier reports.Mike

  2. Anonymous

    Just so there is ACCOUNTABILITY for what they say. Police chief is history but Nagin still calls him a “hero” for his stewardship of the most corrupt police force in America. Stay tuned for Nagin’s exit. His previous job was manager of Comcast in New Orleans. They elected “the cable guy” and are surprised things got screwed up? Talk about getting the government we deserve…

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