Bearing Witness  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   October/November 2005

Bearing Witness   

TV journalists delivered hard-hitting, heartrending accounts of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


It started the way it always does. Wind-whipped television reporters watched the waves crash ashore while warning of worse to come. But the coverage of Hurricane Katrina quickly outgrew the tired clichés and predictable video of storms past. This time, TV proved both its worth and its mettle.

The images were graphic and haunting — a dead body on a lawn chair, families on rooftops begging to be rescued — but the words of reporters on the scene gave them additional meaning and power. CNN's Jeanne Meserve wept openly while describing what she had observed the night after the storm made landfall. "We are sometimes wacky thrill seekers," she said in a live report. "But when you stand in the dark, and you hear people yelling for help and no one can get to them, it's a totally different experience."

As the flooding worsened in New Orleans and the city descended into chaos, television gave voice to the voiceless. On MSNBC, photojournalist Tony Zumbado described conditions for survivors downtown as horrific. "They were told to go to the convention center," he said. "They did; they've been behaving. The attitude there is unbelievable, how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other. They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing. They just want food and support. And what I saw there, I've never seen in this country."

Covering the aftermath of Katrina was both painful and empowering for TV journalists, who refused to be manipulated and spun by politicians and officials trying to put a good face on the response to the crisis. When then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown said his agency was simply unaware of the situation at the Convention Center until four days after the storm hit, ABC's Ted Koppel took him to task on "Nightline." "Don't you guys watch television?" Koppel demanded. "Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today."

CNN's Anderson Cooper was equally direct with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi," he told her. "And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated... Do you get the anger that is out here?" NBC's Tim Russert lectured Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on "Meet the Press": "There was no water, no food, no beds, no authority there. There was no planning."

The storm seemed to free TV reporters from their customary role as detached observers, letting them show their feelings and act like human beings without fear of compromising their journalistic integrity. When they saw danger or need, they either said so or took action. Fox News Channel reporter Jeff Goldblatt noticed a man filling a plastic jug with water from a fountain and shouted, "Sir? That water isn't clean." NBC's Carl Quintanilla, riding a dump truck into a flooded neighborhood, persuaded the driver to take on passengers. "Sir, you've got a huge dump truck," he argued. "You can get these people to that street in 15 minutes."

New Orleans stations struggled to cover the story as their newsrooms flooded and transmitters winked out. WWL radio managed to stay on the air and became a lifeline for people along the coast. Its powerful 50,000-watt signal blanketed the region. "The best communication we have is this radio station," Kenner, Louisiana, Mayor Phil Capitano said in an interview with the station.

Local TV newsrooms relocated to sister stations and doggedly stayed on the story. Even though almost no one in the hardest-hit areas could see their work, they found ways to get their signals out to cities like Baton Rouge and Houston, where thousands of evacuees were hungry for news from home. Even before the floodwaters began to recede, WDSU-TV regrouped in New Orleans.

"[We've] actually hired a security staff comprised of SWAT and police officers from Tulsa, [Oklahoma]," producer Greg Shepperd said in an e-mail to AJR. "They have been guarding our station 24-hours-a-day and we can't..leave the station property without one of the armed escorts accompanying us." The company shipped in air mattresses, too, so employees could sleep at the station.

Inevitably, there were moments when outsize egos seemed to overpower the story. Fox News' Geraldo Rivera, for one, went overboard, posing with babies in front of the Louisiana Superdome and babbling, "Let them walk out of here. Let them walk the hell out of here."

But for the first time in a long time, the cable news networks had a story to cover that deserved every minute they gave it. Viewers noticed, sending ratings up sharply across the board. With real news on the air instead of vapid talk, CNN almost closed the gap with Fox. And the nightly network newscasts showed they still matter, as their combined audience jumped by more than 25 percent over pre-Katrina numbers.

Does all this signal a revival of television news as serious business? It seems unlikely, and the attention focused on the Gulf Coast will inevitably wane. But TV news did itself and the country a service that won't soon be forgotten.

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