Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Changeable News Network

In the days following hurricane Katrina, there were hysterical reports of total disaster and complete social breakdown in New Orleans.

Clayton Cramer quoted a number of reports, including this text from CNN:

Overnight, police snipers were stationed on the roof of their precinct, trying to protect it from gunmen roaming through the city, CNN's Chris Lawrence reported.

One New Orleans police sergeant compared the situation to Somalia and said officers were outnumbered and outgunned by gangs in trucks.

"It's a war zone, and they're not treating it like one," he said, referring to the federal government.


The officer hitched a ride to Baton Rouge Friday morning, after working 60 hours straight in the flooded city. He has not decided whether he will return.

He broke down in tears when he described the deaths of his fellow officers, saying many had drowned doing their jobs. Other officers have turned in their badges as the situation continues to deteriorate.

In one incident, the sergeant said gunmen fired rifles and AK-47s at the helicopters flying overhead.

He said he saw bodies riddled with bullet holes, and the top of one man's head completely shot off.

Here is the link. Try to find any of these reports at the linked file.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

Neither could I.

I have a friend whose response to blogs is a sneer. According to him, blogs are completely biased and unreliable, and you might as well consult a Ouija board for news.

In contrast, I've maintained that blogs link to the stories they comment upon, and anyone with any doubts about the facts being referenced is free to follow the link and check them out for himself. (And I'll mention here, the protocol that's grown up in blogs – at least the ones I follow – of posting corrections promptly and prominently. If the correction is soon enough after the original post, the post is edited, the word "UPDATE" appears, and the fact of the correction is inserted.

Now, on to CNN.

The page linked by Clayton Cramer has no trace of the horrific stories of societal breakdown that characterized the news in the days followign the hurricane. Instead, we see a page describing the recovery process, and tellign of a much more normal level of devastation, the kind you expect when high winds and water lash a city. Two things are conspicuously absent: any trace of the horrific events quoted in Cramer's post, and any sign that the report has been edited.

Now, I see two possibilities.

First, maybe Clayton made it all up. In that case, we'd have to assume he not only typed up a fake story, but he also included a link to a story that he'd have to know said something other than what he was claiming.

I don't think he's that stupid.

Frankly, I don't think my compost pile is that stupid.

Furthermore, at Clayton's post today, he links to other people who cited the same story, and quoted the same text. Even if they were all that stupidly wrong, they'd have to have been that stupidly wrong exactly the same way.

That seems to leave one other possibility: CNN pulled the story, and carefully erased all traces of their having it gotten it hysterically wrong from their website, with not so much as a sentence saying, "We retract this".

If I have to compare blogs with major news organizations in terms of integrity, I'm afraid the major news organizations have some catching up to do.

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