The first casualty of Hurricane Katrina appears to have been the truth. Many of the other casualties were products not of armed gangs or depraved marauders but of overheated imaginations.
The reality of the devastation and misery in New Orleans was bad enough, or should have been. But when the rumors started to fly, we were all taken in.
Now that the deluge of water and journalists have both receded, reporters at the New Orleans Times-Picayune have been separating the tall tales from the true stories. Their findings are startling and instructive.
At the Superdome, for example, there were not hundreds of corpses but six. One person had overdosed, four had died of natural causes, and the one suspicious death, a fall, may have been an accident or suicide.
One shooting has been confirmed: A Louisiana Guardsman was attacked by someone with a metal rod, and he accidentally shot himself in the leg with his own gun during the struggle.
The hundreds of bodies stacked inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center never materialized either; just four were recovered, one of which appeared to be a murder victim.
In fact, according to the parish's district attorney, city authorities have confirmed only four murders in the hurricane's aftermath, which makes that week no more deadly than the norm in New Orleans. There was plenty of looting and some guns, but a convention center official said he never saw any violent crimes.
In the light of day, the overwhelming majority of the assaults, rapes, and slaughter attributed to lawless city dwellers have proved to be either nonexistent or unsubstantiated.
But they were widely reported. While the news media spread the fables, they were not the only ones. Instant urban myths were passed between reporters, evacuees, and even city officials, and they grew more lurid and inflated with each telling.
It was the New Orleans police chief who told of gunfire on police, soldiers, and doctors. The mayor told Oprah Winfrey that armies of gun-toting gang members were on a rampage in the Superdome.
But the piles of dead never turned up. Four weeks later, the chief admits he was wrong (and can't cite a source for the bad information) and has resigned, while the mayor is waffling on the body count and admits he doesn't know exactly what did or didn't happen in the Dome.
Aside from being irresponsible, the gossip-mongering hurt response to real problems - help was sent where it wasn't needed.
A thousand soldiers and police in battle gear went to the convention center to quell the storied mayhem, but they met no resistance, found no evidence of assaults or murders, and were in control in 20 minutes, according to their commander.
People will talk, of course, and the man in the street doesn't always let facts get in the way of a good story. When communication and transportation are all but impossible and a deadline is looming, it's tempting to report hearsay.
Journalists and public officials, however, are supposed to be better than the rumor mill. The hysteria over New Orleans' lawlessness shows the shortcomings of unreliable sources and the danger of jumping to conclusions. The media - and others - would be wise to take a lesson.
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