(This essay was first posted at the Media Myth Alert blog on August 27, 2021.)
USA Today suggested in an editorial the other day that the chaos accompanying Joe Biden’s botched and precipitous withdrawal of U.S. military personnel could turn into a kind of Hurricane Katrina for the president.
The reference was to the damage done to President George W. Bush’s administration by the fitful federal response to the storm that tore into the U.S. Gulf Coast 16 years ago, leaving much of New Orleans under water.
The newspaper’s analogy, while interesting, was cliched and badly misplaced: the hasty and unprovoked U.S. flight Biden ordered from Afghanistan after a 20 year commitment there, and the country’s rapid takeover by Taliban extremists, represent a foreign policy debacle of towering and unprecedented dimensions — a humiliation likely to reverberate for years.
So, no, Afghanistan is hardly “Biden’s Katrina.”
It is scandalously worse, as was confirmed yesterday by the deadly terrorist bombings near Kabul’s international airport, the lone exit from Afghanistan for untold thousands of Americans, other Westerners, and Afghans who allied with them since the U.S.-led invasion in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
It is true that New Orleans in Katrina’s wake conjured comparisons to a war zone. The dominant media narrative in late summer 2005 told of mayhem and unimaginable horror that supposedly had been unleashed across the flooded city.Give the press D-minus on post-Katrina coverage
The Miami Herald, to take just one example, said on September 1, 2005, that a “major American city [had] all but disintegrated … and the expected death toll from Hurricane Katrina mushroomed into the thousands. Bodies floated down streets. Defeated survivors waded waist-deep and ghost-like through floods. Packs of looters rampaged through the ruins and armed themselves with stolen weapons, and gunfire echoed through the city.”
Paula Zahn, for another example, said on her CNN program that day, “We are getting reports that describe [New Orleans] as a nightmare of crime, human waste, rotten food, dead bodies everywhere. Other reports say sniper fire is hampering efforts to get people out.” She referred to “very discouraging reports out of New Orleans tonight about bands of rapists going from block to block, people walking around in feces, dead bodies floating everywhere.”
In her column published September 3, 2005, in the New York Times, Maureen Dowd referred to New Orleans as “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, insufficient troop levels and criminally negligent government planning.”
But much of the reporting about Katrina’s aftermath — the horror, the anarchy, the city’s disintegration — was highly exaggerated and erroneous. Few if any of the nightmarish accounts that pulsated through the news media proved true.
As I wrote in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “On crucial details, journalists erred badly” in describing post-Katrina horrors in New Orleans. What’s more, I wrote, “the erroneous and exaggerated reporting had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies.”
The coverage of Katrina’s aftermath was no “quintessential” great moment in journalism, as some credulous commentators (including former CBS News anchor Dan Rather) declared.
Instead, the exaggerated coverage had the effect of tainting a proud city and its residents at a time of their great vulnerability. It also had the effect of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans.
“If anyone rioted, it was the media,” a bipartisan congressional report on Katrina stated, adding, pointedly:
“Many stories of rape, murder, and general lawlessness were at best unsubstantiated, at worst simply false.”
Some of the most troubling conduct by public figures was not that of the Bush administration but of local government, notably the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and the city’s police commissioner, Eddie Compass. They were sources for some of the most gruesome and exaggerated reporting about lawlessness in Katrina’s aftermath.
At one point, Nagin asserted that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing evacuees inside the New Orleans Superdome. He claimed that conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”
Compass told of other horrors. “We had little babies in there, little babies getting raped,” Compass said about the Superdome where, he claimed, police officers had been shot and wounded.
Their accounts of violence in New Orleans were taken at face value and widely reported — but proved almost completely without foundation. Months later, Compass said he passed along the rumors of violence because he “didn’t want people to think we were trying to cover anything up. So I repeated things without being substantiated, and it caused a lot of problems.”
Compass quit his job in late September 2005. Nagin, who won reelection less than two years after Katrina struck, was convicted in 2014 and sent to prison on 20 counts of corruption, bribery and fraud — charges unrelated to the hurricane and its aftermath. He was released early last year.
Katrina was a powerful, destructive natural disaster, the coverage of which the news media botched.
The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is a bloody, self-inflicted disaster, borne of Biden’s blundering, impatience, and ineptitude.