Needless exaggeration

In today’s NY Post, Jonah Goldberg does a good job (better than I have done) examining the issues of reporting exaggeration and rumor in the heat of crisis in Katrina.

He did not use this deflation of the scale of the horror — as others have — as an opportunity to make it seem as if the disaster and thus the response to it weren’t so bad, after all. No, he leaves all the responsible on the hook, not just media and also local officials but also his guy, Bush:

The president isn’t blameless either. The initial response to Katrina was a mess. We’ll have plenty of time to debate how much of a mess and who was responsible. But it’s a political fact that when the media was hysterical and local leadership behaving abysmally, Bush did not successfully impose order. That’s something he’d have to do in the wake of terrorist attack, and it’s something he should have done with Katrina.

Let’s hope lessons were learned all around.

There are, indeed, lessons to be learned all around and that is where we need to keep our focus.

At a media blatherfest I attended yesterday (more on that later), the talk turned, as it inevitably does at such events, to who’s more trustworthy: Big-media folks thinks they’re trustworthy and they hint that bloggers aren’t; bloggers remind big-media types that a huge hunk of their (former) audience does not trust them and they argue that they have a better means of correction. There was also talk about the need for journalism to stop acting as if it is always right and owns the truth when, in fact, there is far more ambiguity and uncertainty and error than they’ve admitted and the public needs to be — if they aren’t already! — attuned to recognizing the mistakes that come in the fog of war.

But in the case of Katrina — and in spite of very good reporting and commentary across media — it’s still true that everybody messed up, everybody (myself included; Goldberg includes himself as well) bought the exaggerations as news.

Some would say that had an impact on the response. It’s also reasonable to say that the response was all the more shocking because it wasn’t more decisive even in the face of all the Armageddon reports. But the truth, at this end of the day, is that the reporting was merely — as we say online — a presentation layer over the reality. And it was flawed.

What I keep trying to say (and I’ll stop now) is that I hope the debate about the coverage of the story — which needs to happen — will get in the way of the real story, of the lessons everyone needs to learn.