Oct 1 2010

Brian Williams Rehashes Katrina Violence Myth

Remembering media fantasy as reality

For the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, NBC anchor Brian Williams (Dateline NBC, 8/22/10) recalled the experience as his own boy’s adventure tale:

Brian Williams

You know, I’ve been around a lot of guns and a lot of dead bodies, and a lot of people shooting at people to make dead bodies. But you put them all together and you put it in the United States of America, and boy, it gets your attention….

It was clear already there weren’t going to be enough cops…. Everywhere we went, every satellite shot, every camera shot, we were at the height of the violence and the looting and the—all the reports of gunplay downtown. Well, who’s bathed in the only lights in town? It was us….

We had to ask Federal Protection Service guys with automatic weapons to just form a ring and watch our backs while we were doing Dateline NBC one night…. State troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street just to tell them, “Don’t think of doing a smash and grab and killing this guy for the car.”

In the days after the levees broke, corporate media outlets were abuzz with stories of looting, rampant murder, snipers shooting at doctors and rescue helicopters, even the raping of babies at the Superdome (Oprah, 9/6/05, cited in New York Times, 9/19/05). There was a racialized undertone to the coverage, as media jumped on these unfounded stories of violence among the largely black survivors in New Orleans—not to mention the more explicit racism of the iconic Yahoo! News images of survivors carrying food, the black man captioned as “looting” and the white couple as “finding” the food (Extra!, 11-12/05).

But a month later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed (9/26/05) that “most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened”—no babies raped, no snipers and only four confirmed murders in the entire week following the hurricane, a pretty typical week for New Orleans. (The New York Times four days later—9/29/05—reported six or seven confirmed homicides.) And while “looting” did occur, much of it was for survival in a city where some received no help—no food, no water—for days.

While bragging about cops protecting him by pointing guns at passersby, Williams failed to mention the documented police and white vigilante violence in which at least 11 civilians and possibly many more were shot in the days following the hurricane (Nation, 12/17/08; ProPublica, 8/26/10). ProPublica investigative journalist A.C. Thompson, who has done much of the digging on that story, reported two days after Williams’ Dateline reminiscence that in the aftermath of Katrina, “an order circulated among New Orleans police authorizing officers to shoot looters.”

No doubt the media-stoked hysteria over rampant violence fed into the atmosphere of fear and anarchy that made such policies and shootings possible. Rather than rehash that hysteria, media should be apologizing for the part they played in it.

Somewhat surprisingly, Dateline also replayed this clip from Williams in 2005 (Sundance Channel, 10/27/05; NBC, 8/28/06):

The politics of all this are very simple. If we come out of this crisis and in the next couple of years don’t have a national conversation on the following issues: race, class, petroleum, the environment—then we, the news media, will have failed by not keeping people’s feet to the fire.

So what’s the verdict in 2010?

Now, about that national conversation I said we should have about all those issues of race and class and poverty and petroleum, whatever happened with that? Well, in the five years since Katrina, America did elect its first African-American president, but our economy remains crippled. And the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico put petroleum front and center again as an issue that needs our attention. There is one thing, a great thing that happened in New Orleans, a city that’s always been inhabited by both saints and sinners: The Saints won, the Super Bowl, that is, putting New Orleans on top after a long struggle after a bad storm.

While it’s unclear what the Saints’ victory or the recession have to do with the media keeping anyone’s feet to the fire, here are some facts that might shed a little more light on how much of a national conversation on race and class we’ve had: Five years after Katrina, 42 percent of African-Americans in New Orleans say they have not recovered, versus 16 percent of whites (Kaiser Family Foundation, 5/26-6/27/10). A quarter of New Orleans housing is still vacant or blighted, public school enrollment is down 43 percent and the metro area has lost 16 percent of its jobs since the storm (Huffington Post, 8/6/10).

When Williams’ NBC Nightly News colleague Carl Quintanilla reported a week later (8/29/10) from New Orleans’ predominantly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, noting that only one of five of the neighborhood’s residents have returned, Williams wrapped up the brief report: “Wow. All of it poignant, all of it part of the New Orleans way.”

Dateline, 8/22/10, on Hurricane Katrina