Prominent Washington attorney Jay Ricks tells of receiving an e-mail forwarded by a Jackson, Miss., doctor who allegedly went to Houston to help with the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. The letter was widely circulated and was being cited as evidence of the ingratitude of those the doctor was trying to help.
The letter said that after several days of putting up with the most horrendous displays of selfishness and bad manners, including evacuees’ rejecting the food being handed out to them and demands for such things as fast-food hamburgers and other fare, the doctor had thrown up his hands and returned home thoroughly disgusted. It was a none-too-subtle racial indictment clearly aimed at the evacuees, an overwhelming number of whom are black.
Ricks noticed that there was a telephone number attached at the end of the letter with no explanation. He called it and was greeted by a recording from a man who identified himself as the doctor. He completely disavowed the entire incident and denied writing the e-mail, which he condemned. He said he had not been to Houston in 10 years.
Therein lies the tragedy of the Internet, where outlandish and undocumented propaganda can gain wide currency; where “bloggers” with no journalistic training or editorial restraint can spew without challenge the most horrendous and inaccurate allegations to promote their aims. The proliferation of unverifiable claptrap has become increasingly disruptive, as more and more people eschew the traditional sources of news and turn to the Web for their daily doses of information or, more accurately, misinformation. Rumors that took days to reach many now take only minutes to spread to millions.
But it would be wrong to indict the Internet entirely. The nation’s newspapers and television networks have not shown themselves to be the most accurate. The plight of hundreds of thousands along the Gulf Coast is a case in point. For days following Katrina, and to some extent her later twin, Rita, the commercial media overflowed with tales of lawlessness, including looting, rapes and murder, particularly in the streets and shelters of New Orleans. Armed hoodlums were said to be roaming the corridors of the Superdome and convention center. Speculation of the number of deaths ranged as high as 10,000 of the city’s poorest, mainly drowned in the flooded Ninth Ward and nearby parishes.
All of this was fed to the rest of the nation _ and to the world _ in living color and in the screaming headlines of daily newspapers as well as the Internet. Television reporters were thrusting microphones in the face of anyone who would talk and, without questioning the reliability, allowed him or her to spread rumor after rumor. The inaccuracies fed fear and panic instantaneously. Among the worst sources of misinformation were the officials of the city, including Mayor Ray Nagin and the police superintendent, Edwin Compass, who has since resigned over his department’s failures in this disaster.
Nagin, who first said that 10,000 may have died _ the count is now about 885 _ poured gas on the panic by contending that Superdome evacuees were watching “hooligans killing people, raping people.” Compass declared that tourists were being preyed on routinely and cited horrors inside the big dome. Of course, this was not entirely true. So far, only a handful of incidents have been classified as violent. The rest have descended into urban legend.
It is too easy, however, to blame the beleaguered city officials entirely _ to say they had a responsibility to be calm and accurate in their pronouncements. That isn’t always possible. But it is just routinely good journalism to question outlandish estimates and over-the-top claims driven by rumor and panic no matter who is issuing them. Every person who told of a horror inside the Superdome or convention center should have been asked whether he or she personally had witnessed such activity. The answer would, in most cases, have tempered the claims and put them in the proper perspective.
The combination of all this bad information should leave Americans more than a little uneasy about whether they truly are the best informed in the world.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)