Playing Big  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2005

Playing Big   

The media's impressive coverage of hurricane Katrina

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Journalism matters.

We hold that truth to be self-evident. But in recent years the proposition has taken quite a battering.

The litany of woe for the proud but beleaguered profession is painfully familiar. The shrinking audiences. The endless string of plagiarism and fabrication cases. The Wall Street-fueled cutbacks. The post-9/11 timidity. The WMD blunder. It was almost enough to make the most starry-eyed optimist embrace the blogosphere's ubiquitous obits for the so-15-minutes-ago mainstream media.

Then Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast and the Bush administration dithered and stumbled. And the MSM rose to the occasion.

Television's powerful images brought home the unfathomable horrors of New Orleans. Newspapers provided incisive and comprehensive coverage. Local radio served as a lifeline for a devastated region.

People were starved for information. And journalists, brave, committed journalists, went out and got it for them, often under harrowing conditions.

As Marc Fisher points out in his excellent overview (see "Essential Again," page 18), suddenly the notion that there is value in having trained professionals on the scene to cover the news didn't seem quite so quaint.

That the media performed well is hardly a surprise. Journalists live to cover the big story. Acts of nature what one writer I know calls "big weather" have always brought out the best in reporters and news organizations.

But this time there was more to the picture. What was particularly impressive was the fact that journalists were ready, even eager, to hold officialdom accountable, to cut through the gobbledygook. That's a very welcome development.

For years the Washington press corps took a skeptical approach toward people in power. In fact, there were those who thought the press was too aggressive, too confrontational, too quick to poke holes, too rarely willing to transmit the messages of political leaders.

But after 9/11, much of the media seemed cowed, afraid to press too hard, as if questioning the Bush administration's pronouncements about terrorism was somehow unpatriotic. The overly credulous approach to the notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction is a vivid example of the phenomenon, but hardly the only one.

That's not meant to be a blanket indictment. Certainly many news organizations have done a fine job in reporting from Iraq, in depicting a situation that often bears little resemblance to the rosy, what-me-worry pronouncements of the war's architects.

With Katrina, the chasm between the platitudes of the clueless government spokesmen and the ugly reality of New Orleans the devastation, the misery, the Third World-style chaos was overwhelming.

And journalists from Ted Koppel to Tim Russert to Shepard Smith were simply unwilling to hold back from calling the bumbling bureaucrats on their pitiful delusions.

And good for them. Because that's the job of journalists to report the truth. That's not always comfortable. It doesn't always make you the most popular guy in town. But it's the right thing to do. Let's hope Katrina buries forever the notion of false equivalency, the idea that fair and balanced reporting means giving equal weight to opposing positions, regardless of their merit.

The hurricane coverage also reminded us of the remarkable commitment journalists bring to their jobs. Exhibit A is the band of Times-Picayune staffers who remained in New Orleans to cover the flooding when their more sensible colleagues evacuated. One who stayed was Brian Thevenot, who recounts their extraordinary experiences in "Apocalypse in New Orleans" beginning on page 24.

There's a great moment when after the levees burst and with water lapping at the Times-Picayune building the brass tells the staff that the plan is to flee to Baton Rouge or Houma, then come back in with the National Guard. That doesn't sit so well with some staffers. Finally, Sports Editor David Meeks asks Editor Jim Amoss for a delivery truck so he can lead a small group of reporters into the fray.

"How are you going to eat?" Amoss asks. "How are you going to file?"

Replies Meeks, "Jim, we'll find a way." And they did.

Joining them was Natalie Pompilio, a former Times-Picayune reporter who was covering the hurricane for the Philadelphia Inquirer. At one point, she and Thevenot interviewed a forlorn bunch of hurricane victims who had been rescued, then abandoned. They were eager, nay desperate, to tell their heartbreaking stories.

After the two journalists got back into their car, Pompilio, an AJR contributor, turned to Thevenot and said, "I know it may sound inappropriate, but I love my job on days like this."

It's an important job, a special job, and it's never a bad idea to be reminded of that.


For more AJR articles on the coverage of Hurricane Katrina see: "Essential Again," by Marc Fisher and "Apocalypse in New Orleans," by Brian Thevenot

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