Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) — There is hype, and then there is hyper-hype.
Hype is a pretty simple idea. Hyping is, for example, exaggerating a numbers story in order to get more people to view it on the Internet or front page. Hyper-hype happens when someone distorts numbers that were already distorted. Then the change is no longer arithmetic. It is geometric, and the event becomes unrecognizable — as unrecognizable as a former drizzle that has morphed into a Category 4 hurricane.
That is what happened with Katrina. Almost one year ago, the storm swamped New Orleans and killed some 1,500 people in Louisiana, as well as hundreds of others. Even as the levees broke, the rest of the world took the story away from the port city. It transformed Katrina into something it could use for its own purposes.
The transformation was all about numbers. The estimates of potential casualties began on Sunday, Aug 28. On Monday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told the press that "it wouldn't be unreasonable to have 10,000 dead in Orleans Parish." Sometime later that week, Bob Johannessen of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals said 25,000 body bags were on their way to New Orleans.
Editors began phoning reporters and demanding that they confirm that number. Johannessen's factoid never developed into larger news — there weren't tens of thousands of dead. But papers and television began to hype the body-bag item as if the bodies had already been found, and as if the Bush administration were principally to blame.
There was some resistance. Yes, the correspondents told their editors, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or the state of Louisiana had failed. And yes, Bush should have shown up in Louisiana right away, as Lyndon Johnson had after Hurricane Betsy. But if 25,000 people were dead, the reporters said, they probably would know it already.
Still, many correspondents were too shocked to resist. They were just coming off holiday into an appalling story. The number blew around the U.S. media. In Europe and Asia the story went wild, a twister of its own making.
New Orleans recalls another hyper-hyped event — the story of Timisoara, Romania, in 1989. The news was bad. Romania's grim police, the Securitate, had killed citizens. Timisoara also broke at holiday time, when many journalists weren't around. On Dec. 23, the Associated Press moved a story: "Mass Graves Found in Rumania." There were reports of as many as 4,500 corpses. The truth, that several dozen people had been killed, came out much later.
It is clear in both instances why hype became hyper-hype.
Mayor Nagin wanted to maximize New Orleans's sense of being wronged by Louisiana's governor and President George W. Bush's Washington. The anti-Bush press wanted to find something to pin on a president in the tired fifth year of his administration. Film director and author Michael Moore, a big Bush critic, wanted fresh material. Filmmaker Spike Lee wanted to argue that Katrina proved the neglect of American blacks. Democrats wanted ammo for the 2006 midterm elections.
Similar forces drove European papers covering Katrina. Europeans were aching for bad news from the U.S. and now they had it in FEMA's bungling and the failure of other federal offices. Europeans don't understand American federalism, so they didn't understand why Bush hadn't marched into New Orleans as if it were Baghdad.
'Hatred for America'
One foreign wire service suggested that 1,500 had died in a single suburban area. The coverage was so egregious that Tony Blair was shocked. Rupert Murdoch said the U.K. prime minister told him the British Broadcasting Corp.'s coverage was "full of hatred for America." By Sept. 12, U.K. columnist William Rees-Mogg was already calling the U.S. 2008 presidential election, saying that Katrina made Hillary Clinton "unstoppable."
In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu's opponents used the reports of slaughter as a pretext to execute him the same week, with only a brief mock trial.
You can argue that spin served a good cause. Saddam Hussein is beginning his second trial this week. Plenty of Iraqis probably wish the U.S. had dispatched the murderer in the fashion that the Romanians did with Ceausescu.
Katrina has focused the country on the poor in Louisiana. It has also reminded us of the importance of education. Those who didn't get out were those least able to inform themselves.
There is another point here. It is that the spin obscures the tragedy. People really did die in New Orleans. Many thousands more lost their homes. Others lost "merely" their vans, their carpets, or their dental-implant records.
By forcing observers to take political sides on the issue so early, the spin-meisters corrupted the mourning process. And claiming big numbers devalued the deaths of the smaller number who did die.
The cultural tradition in the U.S. is to be factual about everything from earnings reports to earthquakes. Historically, our death counts have been made slowly and accurately — nothing Romanian about them. When we make a natural disaster out to be a partisan apocalypse we create skepticism about future hurricanes, earthquakes, or landslides. We erode our own veracity.
You could argue that Katrina has so galvanized the U.S. that it is better prepared to handle disasters in future. And some will do it. But that, too, would be just so much hype.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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