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News of Pandemonium May Have Slowed Aid

Among false reports emerging from New Orleans was news of a young corpse with a slashed throat. Officials have no such record.
Among false reports emerging from New Orleans was news of a young corpse with a slashed throat. Officials have no such record. (By David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)

But there turned out to be little evidence to support CNN host Paula Zahn speaking of "reports" of "bands of rapists, going block to block," or New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on national television, describing the scene as "animalistic."

In recent days, the retractions have begun. Then-Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared with Nagin on Sept. 6 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The mayor said people inside the Superdome had witnessed murders and rapes. Compass added that "little babies [are] getting raped." Both have since pulled back. "The information I had at the time, I thought was credible," Compass told the Times-Picayune last week before submitting his resignation. The paper had pointed out several inconsistencies in his statements.

Violent crimes with a weapon, such as aggravated battery, numbered only a few dozen, Letten said. Officials made arrests for a double homicide and two rapes in Jefferson Parish and one rape in Orleans Parish, said Pam Laborde of the Louisiana Department of Corrections. Federal agents arrested a man for shooting at a helicopter, on Sept. 5. But several officials, including Blanco, now believe that some of the gunfire people reported in the city was attempts to signal rescuers because residents have told them so.

Setting the Record Straight

Maj. Bush of the Louisiana National Guard said he is glad the record is being corrected.

"I certainly saw fights, but I saw worse fights at a Cubs game in Chicago," he said. "The people never turned into these animals. They have been cheated out of being thought of as these tough people who looked out for each other. We had more babies born [in the Superdome] than we had deaths."

Media companies have begun to retrace their steps. The Los Angeles Times said last week that its story about the evacuation of the Superdome "adopted a breathless tone." Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, said reporting was challenging because official sources -- in particular Compass, the police chief -- initially confirmed many of the things reported on the air. As more information has become available, Klein said, the network has corrected the record and highlighted the danger of swirling rumors.

"We are ever vigilant about separating rumor from fact," Klein said. "This story is a good reminder of the need to do that."

Keith M. Woods, faculty dean at the Poynter Institute for journalists, is willing to cut reporters some slack. "Every institutional source for quality information was uprooted," said Woods, a New Orleans native whose father's and sister's homes were flooded. "It was different than 9/11 because everything was underwater, and you are relying totally on word of mouth. In that situation, invariably, we will get some things wrong. One of the questions that would have served us better is 'How do you know that?' "

Staff writers Lynne Duke and Ann Scott Tyson and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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