Seeing the forest for the flood

The Times-Picayune posted a roundup of the exaggerations and rumors that got press and play during the flood but that now turn out to be untrue or unsubstantiated. It’s a good story; the only thing that would have made it better would have been for the paper to have posted direct links to its own reports of these exaggerations (see the prime example of such a story here; see my link to it here; see my correction here). As David Carr said in his column here, exaggerations are inevitable in such huge stories; it’s the fog of war made only foggier by the rush of time in this age of instant media. The odd thing is that this usually happens in awful stories — wars, disasters, 9/11 — where there is no need to amplify the horror. But it happens. And when the heat of the moment cools, these mistakes and their corrections have an equally inevitable impact on our perceptions.

That’s one of the points I was trying to get to in the post below on the correction of one mistaken story out of New Orleans. I clearly didn’t express myself well enough and stirred the hornets, so let me make the damned fool mistake of trying again:

Should mistakes and exaggerations be corrected? Absolutely. Do facts matter? Well, of course.

But the problem with those exaggerations and with our addiction to big numbers, which I wrote about here, is that we too often lose perspective. Look at it in generic terms:

You think the story is this big (10,000 dead) or this bad (7-year-old girl raped at Convention Center) and when those dire reports, rumors, and predictions turn out to be wrong, that doesn’t mean the story is no longer bad and big. But instead of measuring the reality of the situation, we’re beginning to measure the change in perceptions about it — especially as various sides try to manage those perception. So I’ll say it again: Just because the situation isn’t as bad as we were led to believe doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad… or certainly, in the converse, doesn’t make the situation good. And to look at it from another side, just because it was bad (thugs threaten people), that doesn’t mean it was all bad (most people stayed civilized and helped each other).

New Orleans was bad. It was bad in many ways we don’t even know. It always was good in ways we haven’t heard yet as tales of heroism and communities at work come out. But the bottom line remains: It sure as hell could and should have been better. So I am loath to let anyone off the hook at any level, from any party, until we make serious efforts to find out what was wrong and fix it and do it better the next time. Is it about blame? I actually wish it weren’t (and that’s what I said in relation to the 9/11 commission). It should be about finding the problems and then implementing the solutions so more are not neglected or lost in the next tragedy, man- or nature-made.

So now to Russert v. Broussard. I had two problems. First was the implication of the Russert’s sound-biting: that if Broussard was wrong about certain facts and chronololgies of his story of the nursing home death, for whatever reason, then his criticism of the relief effort was less valid, less — in Russert’s word — “fair.” But that’s simplistic; after getting past the correction of the facts and times, which is necessary, it’s also necessary to stay on the story and to continue to investigate the larger story of response in New Orleans. It’s not about Broussard the reporter. It’s about government protecting citizens and Broussard is every bit as much in the focus of that magnifying glass as is Bush. Second, I found Russert’s attack on Broussard unseemly, all the worse because it was over the dead body of an old woman and because Russert himself should know that he makes mistakes and people accuse him of doing it with an agenda and so he should think twice before he accuses others of that.

In the end, what is the real value of journalism? I hope it is perspective and experience. I hope it is the ability to keep focused on the real story as others get knickers in knots about misplaced facts or political spins or hidden agendas. It was Russert’s job not to pillory Broussard over a fact but to hold Broussard and all government accountable for their response — their clearly inadequate response — to this tragedy.

: Now I’ve been taken to task by a few for saying that facts can be a commodity. Notably, Dick Meyers got all hot and bothered about this. He should cool his jets. Once a fact is reported and known it is, of course, a commodity: Everybody knows it, nobody owns it. The fact isn’t the story. The story is the story. The real story in New Orleans is not that one tragic old lady. The story in New Orleans is much larger: all about what government’s responsibilities are and whether government met those responsibilties and whether we can learn from the mistakes that government and others made and whether we will all be safer the next time… or whether we’ll be too damned busy pissing on each other. Are we a society or a debating society?