It is rare for us to devote this space to debunking a report by another member of the news media, but an incendiary report by 60 Minutes about New Orleans' long-term viability after Hurricane Katrina cries out for local response -- and professional criticism. Simply put, the 60 Minutes report was just about the worst example of shallow, one-sided, agenda-driven reporting we have ever witnessed. It was almost as if the once-respected CBS news magazine decided to throw objectivity and fairness out the window so that it could lend credence to the callous rants of narrow-minded dolts like U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who said New Orleans should not be rebuilt because most of it is below sea level. We expect that kind of idiocy from bought-and-paid-for politicians; we don't expect 60 Minutes to promote such senselessness. Sadly, that's exactly what happened, and the network owes all of southeast Louisiana an apology for the sorry mess -- and the tide of misinformation -- it has left in the wake of its superficial report.
In the story, which aired Nov. 20, 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley presents an obscure professor from St. Louis as his only source for the contention that New Orleans should not be rebuilt because it is sinking -- and that the city will become an island completely detached from the rest of North America before the end of this century. "We should be thinking about a gradual pullout of New Orleans, and starting to rebuild people's homes, businesses and industry in places that can last more than 80 years," St. Louis University geologist Tim Kusky tells Pelley in an interview that aired as part of the report.
No other scientist was cited in Pelley's story. Indeed, there is evidence now that 60 Minutes ignored pleas by local authorities and others to seek additional input from geologists and earth scientists who know a lot more about the Louisiana coastline than Kusky. Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, asked 60 Minutes on Nov. 19 to delay airing the story so that scientists who have studied and documented Louisiana's erosion problems could be included as a counter-weight to Kusky's comments. The network refused. Thus, the appearance of unfairness, bias and an agenda other than truth.
Worst of all, Kusky is so easily discredited as a source. First, he is not an authority on coastal erosion. According to a report by The Times-Picayune, Kusky's geological area of concentration is hard rock that once formed part of mid-oceanic undersea plates. Thus, citing Kusky as an authority on coastal erosion and subsidence is like asking a dermatologist to perform a heart transplant. The dermatologist may be a physician, but he's hardly the doctor for the task at hand. Second, Kusky has spent little or no time studying the Louisiana coast up-close. He admitted to the T-P that he has conducted no research of Louisiana's wetlands -- other than "field trips with my students." Finally, Kusky's conclusions reportedly were based on data gathered by other, more noteworthy scientists -- but some of those same scientists say he completely misread, misinterpreted, and misrepresented that data.
It's a shame that 60 Minutes chose to debase itself by presenting such a sorry excuse for serious reporting. The timing of the story is even more unfortunate, coming as it does when Congress is debating whether -- and how much -- to continue helping the Gulf region recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Rather than add objective facts or reasoned opinions to the growing national and local discourse on how best to rebuild, 60 Minutes has chosen to kick New Orleans while we're down. As the storm raged, and during much of its aftermath, New Orleanians endured not only the man-made flood created by criminally inadequate levees but also a media-made flood of trite (and often inaccurate) reporting by network news crews and national correspondents who just don't "get" our unique city. But we could tolerate the endless string of clichs about New Orleans and Bourbon Street from itinerant scribes; we're used to that. What we can't stomach is someone deliberately trying to sabotage our city's fledgling recovery.
As journalists, we are embarrassed by the slipshod mode of newsgathering exhibited by the 60 Minutes report. We wish we could offer New Orleanians some consolation in its aftermath. We can't. Instead, we can only speculate that the correspondent and his producers spent too much time in our city's watering holes and not enough time researching the subject of their report. Indeed, the story was so riddled with exaggeration, error and bias that we have to wonder whether Pelley devoted even 60 minutes to the task of seeking the truth. We doubt it. If 60 Minutes doesn't retract -- and correct -- the blatant errors and omissions of Pelley's report, then the only thing that will be sinking fast around these parts will be the ratings of the program that allows such tripe to pass for real journalism.