AJR: CNN's Paula Zahn Wanted To Steer Around Blaming Media for Katrina Errors

December 8th, 2005 8:28 AM

The new December issue of American Journalism Review includes an article by New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot titled "Myth-Making In New Orleans." Thevenot was one of the Times-Picayune reporters who ended up feeling the need to correct the wildest stories emerging from New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He doesn't spare anyone in the piece, quoting Fox News hyperbole (and knocking conservative media-critic sites like ChronWatch). But the story's worth reading. The most interesting part is how Thevenot and his colleagues were treated on TV. CNN's Paula Zahn looks especially interested in steering around blaming the media for their mistakes.

We came away with differing assessments of how the television media had handled the revision. Meeks and Perlstein felt Zahn, in the live interview, had tried to pile the entirety of the blame at the foot of the New Orleans mayor and police chief, fully exonerating the media and street-level sources.

Zahn started the interview by asking Perlstein: "So, Michael, how is it that the mayor got all of this wrong?"

Perlstein didn't bite, explaining that the mayor – along with much of the media – had gotten somewhat understandably engulfed in the hysteria that spread like wildfire through a city with a devastated communications apparatus. "I think that the mayor was caught up in the same thing that a lot of people were caught up, reporters, officials and everyone else here included, and that there was a communications blackout," Perlstein said. "He was getting reports from pretty credible sources. But, by then, it had been passed along four or five different times, the story exaggerated each time along the way."

Zahn didn't appear interested in spreading the blame.

Zahn: "So, Michael in the end, what do you think is the most egregious exaggeration the mayor made?" she asked.

Perlstein responded that Nagin would have been wise to wait for a more official review of the violence at the Dome and the Convention Center.

Apparently still unsatisfied, Zahn served up another mayor-bashing opportunity to Meeks.

"Clearly, there was a great sensitivity to race in covering this story. But you had an African American mayor. You had the head of the police department being an African American. And, clearly, they had to be sensitive that what they were saying was going to have some tremendous impact. You're not suggesting, David, that they intentionally exaggerated this story?"

Neither Meeks nor anyone reasonable had suggested anything of the kind.