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Seven at New Orleans Times-Picayune Win Duranty-Blair Prize

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New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters Brian Thevenot, Gordon Russell, Jeff Duncan and Gwen Filosa; managing editors, news, Peter Kovacs and Dan Shea; and editor Jim Amoss, are the newest winners of the Duranty-Blair Prize for Journalistic Infamy, for their September 26, 2005 attempt to “untell” the story of the savage violence that befell New Orleans just before and after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29 of last year.

The previous Duranty-Blair winner was former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, who engineered what became known as the “Memogate” (aka Rathergate) hoax, shortly before the 2004 election, in an effort to swing the election toward Democrat presidential challenger, Sen. John Kerry (MA).

The Duranty-Blair Award is this author's creation, named for two of the most notorious scoundrels in the history of American journalism, Walter Duranty and Jayson Blair, both of whom were New York Times reporters.

On April 17, the Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer Prize for public service for a September 26, 2005 story that had immediately been discredited by the bloggers “ziel” of Your Lying Eyes and Eric Scheie at Classical Values.

Thanks primarily to the new Duranty-Blair winners, one year and three weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall the general public knows much less about what happened in New Orleans than it did a year ago.

The two most influential stories on post-Katrina New Orleans were both published by the Times-Picayune, the city’s only major newspaper, on September 6 and September 26, 2005, respectively. For brevity’s sake, hereafter I will refer simply to “9/6” and “9/26,” respectively.

When 9/6 was published, telling tales of bone-chilling savagery, it immediately became part of the worldwide, 24/7, mainstream media (MSM) echo chamber. Twenty days later, 9/26 thoroughly contradicted and sought to discredit 9/6, painting a picture of New Orleans as racked with looters, desperation, and contaminated floodwaters, yet free of violence.

The 9/26 story never cited 9/6, much less noted that 9/6 had been published by the same newspaper, and that one of the 9/26 reporters, Brian Thevenot, had been the sole author of 9/6. The 9/26 story immediately became part of the worldwide, 24/7 MSM echo chamber with no MSM personalities questioning the veracity of 9/26, mentioning the discrepancies between the two stories, or the fact that both stories were published by the same newspaper.

Whereas the politically unpalatable 9/6 story was sent down the memory hole, the politically acceptable 9/26 story has been promoted ever since by the MSM. Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

In 9/6, entitled, “Mayor says Katrina may have claimed more than 10,000 lives; Bodies found piled in freezer at Convention Center,” Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot wrote of visiting a room at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center which held four corpses covered in sheets, and of the National Guardsmen, a combat veteran from the War in Iraq who accompanied him and who was left “shell-shocked” by what he saw. “[Mikel] Brooks and several other Guardsmen said they had seen between 30 and 40 more bodies in the Convention Center's freezer. ‘It's not on, but at least you can shut the door,’ said fellow Guardsman Phillip Thompson.”

Thevenot also quoted Brooks as saying that there was “a 7-year-old with her throat cut" in the freezer. “He moved on, walking quickly through the darkness, pulling his camouflage shirt to his face to screen out the overwhelming odor. ‘There's an old woman,’ he said, pointing to a wheelchair covered by a sheet. ‘I escorted her in myself. And that old man got bludgeoned to death,’ he said of the body lying on the floor next to the wheelchair….”

In a featured article by Brian Thevenot in the October/November 2005 American Journalism Review, “Apocalypse in New Orleans,” he repeated his most dramatic stories.

In 9/6, the only story Thevenot related from National Guardsmen which was not based on claims of first-hand knowledge, was the following: “One of the bodies, they said, was a girl they estimated to be 5-years old. Though they could not confirm it, they had heard she was gang-raped.”

Note that the Guardsmen were quite sure that, as with the seven-year-old, they had the five-year-old’s corpse.

Realizing after 9/6 that they had violated the taboo against presenting black folks behaving badly, especially after blacks across the country had voiced outrage at the media for referring to black looters as, um, “looters,” (and for even referring to black refugees as “refugees”) and/or because Times-Picayune editors and staffers remembered, ‘Hey, we’ve got to live here,’ the newspaper reversed course, and “untold” the huge story it had broken.

Unlike Superman, however, the folks at the Times-Picayune could not reverse time by flying against the Earth’s axis more rapidly than the speed of light, so they had to be more creative.

In case the reader has come to believe that 9/6 was indeed a phony story and thus would tend to believe a story contradicting it, I ask him to keep in mind the following points: Thevenot and the Times-Picayune did not retract or correct 9/6; and as I will demonstrate in this series, through the work of many journalists, including some at the Times-Picayune, 9/26 was itself a fraudulent story.

Discredited from the Get-Go

In 9/26, entitled “Rumors of deaths greatly exaggerated; Widely reported attacks false or unsubstantiated; 6 bodies found at Dome; 4 at Convention Center,” Times–Picayune reporters Brian Thevenot, Gordon Russell, Jeff Duncan and Gwen Filosa, claimed to have followed up on and disproved the most dramatic stories, including 9/6.

The initial criticisms made against Thevenot & Co. included:

1. That following 9/6, but prior to 9/26, the 9/6 story’s most dramatic charges “of dead children in the Convention Center” had been denounced by police Superintendent Eddie Compass as “vicious rumors,” but the Times-Picayune had never printed a correction (Bonnie Wren);

2. The charge that the 9/26 claim that rumors” and “exaggerations” had asserted that there were over 200 corpses at the Superdome, was a straw man argument intended, by counterposing it to extremely low “true” body counts, to discredit all stories of post-Katrina mayhem ("ziel" at Your Lying Eyes); and

3. The 9/26 charges that the most dramatic stories about the Convention Center were “exaggerations” and rumor-mongering would mean that Thevenot and the Times-Picayune had been guilty of “exaggerations” and rumor-mongering (Eric Scheie).

Regarding the second criticism, it is only in Thevenot’s solo December/January AJR article, in which he claimed to be debunking claims of 300 corpses warehoused at one school, that he cited one specific media report, a September 5, 2005 article in London’s Financial Times, that he said spoke of masses of corpses warehoused in a school in St. Bernard Parish. I do not recall hearing or reading echoes of the Financial Times article at the time.

As for the second and third criticisms, respectively, on September 26, in “Who’s Complaining About Exaggerations?,” Scheie scratched his head, in response to 9/26 and Thevenot, since Thevenot was “condemning” bad reporting, while “By implication, he's now saying that his own story, which I was unfortunate enough to link before in the assumption that it was accurate, was either lying or exaggerated…and completely failing to point out that his own story played a key role.”

The Four Faces of Brian

Let me sum up the World According to Thevenot (and Co., in the case of 9/26).

1. In 9/6: Every atrocity in the book occurred in the convention center;

(Ditto, in the October/November AJR article, which Thevenot surely wrote prior to 9/26);

2. In 9/26, Thevenot, Russell, Duncan and Filosa claimed that “rumors” were responsible for the beliefs worldwide about savagery in post-Katrina New Orleans, and strongly suggested that there was in fact no savagery at all, and no firing on rescue workers and other helpers (soldiers, doctors, contractors seeking to repair the breaches, et al.) at the Convention Center, Superdome, or anywhere else in post-Katrina New Orleans. Indeed, they cited Orleans Parish (known elsewhere as New Orleans) DA Eddie Jordan as saying that “authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina – making it a typical week …”

And based on the 9/26 quote of Louisiana National Guard Maj. David Baldwin, who insisted that despite 30,000 desperate people, a substantial proportion of whom would have been criminals, being stuck for five days without food, water, toilets or electricity in the Superdome, only one gunshot was fired the whole time, we would have to conclude that the Superdome was the safest place in American’s most violent city.

But what about the Convention Center?

According to 9/26, in spite of 20,000 people being stuck for five days in the Convention Center in even worse conditions (e.g., no security) than in the Superdome, a detachment of 1,000 soldiers and police led by Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux later “found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes or beatings.”

The 9/26 team also reported NOPD SWAT team leader Capt. Jeff Winn’s claim that in spite of “aggressively frisking” suspects in the Convention Center, his officers did not find a single weapon.

If Col. Thibodeaux and Capt. Winn are to be believed, in the days immediately following Katrinathe Convention Center was the safest place in America.

When the Superdome and Convention Center refugees were sent to other cities, and local officials did criminal background checks on them, the officials found that up to 54.7 percent of the refugees, including men and women, had criminal records. When other cities requested help from the Department of Homeland Security with criminal background checks of refugees, DHS refused, presumably anticipating embarrassing results.

Nowhere does the 9/26 team admit to having caused the “rumored” beliefs in question.

3. On October 3, Thevenot apparently lied to Eric Scheie, in asserting that Thevenot had retracted 9/6;

4. In Thevenot’s December/January AJR article, he asserted that 9/26 was a “correction” of 9/6, and again argued that in spite of massive looting, New Orleans was not plagued by violence in Katrina’s wake. That would have been a first in human history.

* * *

The first law of lying is plausibility.

In a rare positive aspect of 9/26, the reporters did suggest that low official estimates of post-Katrina rapes may not have been accurate.

“Corrections” and “retractions” are formal acts undertaken by newspapers when they have been shown to have botched a story. They are typically brief, appear on page two in the paper version, and are typically added to the Web version of the original story online. In extreme cases, an editor will assign a different reporter to redo the original story, from scratch, in a story that will be billed as a correction.

In the latter case, as occurred in July 2003, when New York Times reporter Lynette Holloway dramatically botched a music business story with huge financial and legal implications, the newspaper will also fire the reporter who screwed up or, as in Holloway’s case, permit her to resign. In the most dramatic case, in May 2003, in the wake of the Jayson Blair fabrication/plagiarism scandal, the Times published a 14,000+-word correction.

In Thevenot’s December-January AJR story, he attacked Eric Scheie and other bloggers who made valid criticisms of him, while refusing to name them — so that readers could not check out the criticisms for themselves — and without giving the context for their criticisms: “Some branded me a hypocrite for writing about myth-making after I'd earlier reported one of the myths, the ‘30 or 40’ bodies.”

Instead, the only Internet critic Thevenot named was ChronWatch’s Lester Dent, whose criticism Thevenot was, so he says, able to refute. In the meantime, Lester Dent seems to have vanished.

On October 1, Eric Scheie of Classical Values reported receiving an e-mail from Thevenot, in which the latter complained, “Did you somehow miss the portion of the follow-up story in which I debunked my own myth about the 40 bodies in the freezer? Did you not bother to read the whole story? I admitted my own mistake, under my own byline, and in again in interviews with news stations and newspapers that interviewed me about myths at the Dome and Convention Center. And now you purport to expose me after I exposed myself?”

Thevenot was referring to 9/26, but nowhere in that story had he admitted his mistake. And while in his second AJR story, two months after having written to Scheie, Thevenot did confess to having spread the “myth about the 40 bodies in the freezer,” even there he did not claim to have made said confession in his media interviews. Indeed, had he done so, his celebrity likely would have vanished. He was being interviewed for having busted a “myth,” not for having foisted one on the public, and then “corrected” it.

While millions of civilians heard of or read 9/6 and/or 9/26, the second AJR story was primarily read by a few thousand leftwing journalism professors not known for their diligence or intellectual integrity.

Is it possible that some exaggerated statements were made about specific acts of violence in the Superdome or the Convention Center? Anything’s possible. But jumping from one bandwagon to another is not good for one’s ankles, especially when one has no good reason for jumping, and the person prodding one to jump has been exposed as a serial liar.

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