Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

ANATOMY OF AN URBAN LEGEND....Yesterday I wrote a post about a few urban legends surrounding Hurricane Katrina, one of which was this:

On Thursday, September 1, Mike Brown and Michael Chertoff knew nothing about the mob scene at the Convention Center even though it had been on national television "for at least a day."

Bob Somerby said that was wrong, a couple of my commenters disagreed, and today Bob took up the subject again. So what really happened?

Based on Bob's posts and a review of the Nexis archives, here's the basic chronology starting on Wednesday, August 31. There's an odd twist at the end, though, so read the whole thing.

Wednesday evening: The mob scene at the convention center gets its initial coverage on cable news.

Fox has a single brief mention at 7 pm, when Jeff Goldblat tells Shepard Smith about "many heading to the convention center because they have heard the rumor that buses will take them somewhere."

CNN's coverage is a little more extensive. At 3 pm Lt. Brian Wininger tells Wolf Blitzer, "we just pushed a whole bunch of people...to the convention center."

At 7 pm Chris Lawrence tells Anderson Cooper there are 3,000 people at the Convention Center: "These people are hungry. They're tired. They've got nowhere to go. They've got no answers, and they've got no communication whatsoever." At 8 pm he tells Paula Zahn "there are literally thousands of people lined up at this convention center wandering aimlessly."

On MSNBC at 10 pm, Michelle Hofland tells Joe Scarborough that "it is absolute chaos" at the Convention Center.

At 11:09 pm, the Times-Picayune posts a piece that mentions 3,000 people "stranded" at the Convention Center: "A steady stream of often angry or despondent people, many from flooded Central City, trickled first toward Lee Circle and then to the convention center."

Thursday morning: The scene at the Convention Center is all over the news.

Thursday morning/afternoon: DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff tells NPR, "I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water." This is an especially clueless statement since it was made literally at the same time that the Convention Center mob scene was blanketing the airwaves. It is undoubtedly the source of all subsequent reporting about DHS and FEMA being out of touch with what was happening in New Orleans.

Thursday evening: Mike Brown tells Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News, "The federal government just learned about those people today." Later he tells Paula Zahn, "the federal government did not even know about the Convention Center people until today."

On Nightline, Ted Koppel asks Brown, "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today." Brown responds: "We learned about it factually today that that what existed."

So who's right? There was coverage on CNN throughout Wednesday evening, and Chertoff didn't know anything about the situation on Thursday morning even though there was loads of coverage by then. For his part, Brown said repeatedly on Thursday that FEMA had only learned about the situation at the Convention Center that day.

On the other hand, the Wednesday evening reports were brief and included no video, so Koppel overplayed his hand when he implied broad coverage the previous day. (And as Bob points out, the coverage that did exist from Wednesday was from other networks, not ABC.)

But here's the odd twist. In his interview with the New York Times yesterday, Brown was asked why FEMA hadn't learned about the Convention Center chaos until Thursday:

"I just absolutely misspoke." In fact, he said, he learned about the evacuees there from the first media reports more than 24 hours earlier, but the reports conflicted with information from local authorities and he had no staff on the site until Thursday.

Huh? On Thursday the 1st, Brown said at least three times that he hadn't learned about the Convention Center until that day, but now he says he "misspoke" on every one of those occasions. And regardless of whether the reporting on Wednesday evening was thin or not, Brown now says FEMA had been following it after all. They just didn't do anything about it because it "conflicted with information from local authorities" a statement he doesn't back up at all.

Bottom line: I don't know whether this really counts as an urban legend or not. In general, Brown and Chertoff really were pretty ignorant about what was going on, so the general charge of cluelessness seems fair to me. On the other hand, they hadn't been ignoring blanket coverage for 24 hours, either.

Draw your own conclusions. But if you're planning to write about this incident, regardless of what you plan to say, at least now you know the chronology of what really happened.

Corrections and updates welcome, of course.

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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