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From AJR,   October/November 2005  issue

Essential Again   

As the tragedy of Katrina unfolded, the battered mainstream media elevated their games, challenging inaccurate statements by public officials and providing crucial information to an audience that needed it desperately.

Related reading:   What’s in a Name?

By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.     

The levees broke and the city joined the sea, and the cameras bore witness and the ink-stained scribblers rose up from a vale of troubles to chronicle the days of the fearful and the forgotten.

In this era of blogs, pundits and shouted arguments, the coming of Katrina reunited the people and the reporters. In a time of travail, parts of the media landscape that had seemed faded, yea, even discarded, now felt true.

The hurricane that laid waste to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast hit the land and its people with Biblical force, sending us in search of ancient verities: We needed to see for ourselves. We had to hear the stories of the people. We wanted to know what had happened.

So as the summer of 2005 came to a violent end, journalism journeyed back, setting aside for a few days the allure of the Internet and the promise of a nation of citizen reporters. Once again, we understood the power of mass media, the shared experience of a nation gathering in its living rooms to see momentous events on television, to feel the satisfaction of reading a newspaper's first shot at making sense of difficult and complex times. Web, schmeb: Without electricity, those who lived in the path of Hurricane Katrina depended on old battery-powered radios and whatever newspaper they could borrow for a few minutes from the guy in the next cot.

Katrina, however briefly, took us back to a simpler time. Audiences for the cable news channels tripled and more, but their combined numbers couldn't come close to those of any one of the old broadcast networks. The Internet would come to play an essential and innovative role in bringing people together, but only in the second phase of the coverage. Those first days were a time for intrepid TV cameramen to take us into the stench and the sweat, the anger and the not knowing, the fear of those who seemed abandoned by their own country. Those first days were a time for newspapers to put aside jitters about their declining importance and worries about layoffs and cutbacks. The old papers instead reasserted the comfort and utility of news you could hold in your hand.

Katrina came so soon after the departure of the Big Three, the TV anchormen who had steadied us through the wars, deaths and uncertainties of more than a generation of American life. Now we entered a crisis for the first time on our own in a media cacophony that grows daily in countless new directions. Though most viewers likely couldn't name the new network anchormen, we turned to NBC, ABC and CBS anyway, even if the networks themselves couldn't be bothered to drop regular programming as they had after 9/11.

When the networks trusted themselves enough to serve up straightforward reporting, they were essential. ABC's "Nightline" regained an urgency it had too often lost during a period of experimentation with softer, long-form nonfiction. Here's Chris Bury inside New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, clearly exhausted, yet authoritative in his reporting from the place he called "the real hell on earth." "Nightline's" reporters demonstrated that stories have their own power, that there is no call for the blizzard of graphics or the soundtrack of syrupy pop music that other TV producers tacked onto their coverage. Here's Bury taking us along to see the desperation of a daughter trying to find water for her dying 84-year-old mother. Here's John Donvan from an underpass on Interstate 10, with people "stuck inside their own rescue," watching as a grandmother is choppered away from her family and asking, "Who's in charge of this whole thing?" and letting us hear the answer: "We have no idea."

On CNN, Aaron Brown's voice grew ever lower, barely above a mumble, as he drew tales from strained reporters. A former radio talk host, Brown, more than most on television, understands the power of sound, and on the evening when he kept reporter Jeanne Meserve on the phone even as the images of the day overwhelmed her, the anchorman helped Meserve communicate the gravity of the situation, establishing her humanity even as she maintained her dignity. The wall between reporter and citizen became a bit more penetrable.

There were excesses in those first days as well. On Fox News Channel, Geraldo Rivera once again demonstrated his desperately mawkish showboating as he held a black baby in his arms, shouting at Sean Hannity, "Let them out of here!" NBC ended its prime-time special with insultingly hokey gospel music accompanying snippets of video from the scene of devastation. Ignoring the public's hunger for news from the gulf, the networks' brass seemed to mistrust anything that could not be sold as entertainment. No network broke into prime-time programming until the first Wednesday, and even then CBS News was granted but a half hour for storm coverage.

But at every step along the way, when the bosses let reporters do their jobs, the results were revelatory. Fox took a leap forward, showing that its reporters could be tough and critical even of an administration that its corporate hierarchy supports. Shepard Smith in Louisiana was as aggressive as anyone on the tube, repeatedly showing viewers how their government had abandoned its people: "We were expecting a naval armada," Smith said that first Thursday. "It hasn't happened." Yet Fox's policy of using its highly partisan talk show hosts as news anchors often undermined its best reporting, as blowhards such as Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Greta Van Susteren blurred any lines between journalism and rant.

But Fox was far from alone in going beyond traditional reporting to confront viewers with the extreme gap between the government's claims ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job") and the reality on the ground. It's not clear whether the news media were liberated by the Internet era's emphasis on opinion and personality, or whether the particulars of this story demanded a more confrontational approach, but from "Nightline" to "Fox News Sunday," from the front pages of the Los Angeles Times to the blogs on the Web site of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, reporters got in the faces of the authorities.

Ted Koppel lit into then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who mouthed obvious falsehoods at every turn. Koppel: "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio?" CNN's Soledad O'Brien needled Brown: "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting?" Later she asked: "Why no massive airdrop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got food dropped two days after the tsunami struck." CNN's Anderson Cooper slashed at Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.): "Excuse me, senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. 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."

But as cathartic as such confrontations could be, what connected most effectively was what much of the blogger world had so derided: firsthand reporting by professional observers. TV showed the dead bodies; newspaper reporters found out who they were and how they came to be abandoned on a sidewalk. With electricity out and cell phones and BlackBerrys dead, TV networks brought in satellite trucks and National Public Radio drove down two RVs to serve its 20 journalists in the area. Reporters relied on the old-fashioned ways: Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and AJR contributor Natalie Pompilio rejoined her former colleagues at the Times-Picayune, sleeping on the floor of a friendly paper's newsroom, reporting around New Orleans by bicycle, trying to find the right balance between collecting information and helping those around her. Pompilio recounted her experiences for her readers and in an e-mail to friends, in which she wrote, "I was interviewing one man today when another woman walked up to me, in tears, and said, 'Can you write down my name? Because I don't think I'm going to make it.'" Later in the e-mail, she wrote, "For me, this is worse than Iraq. Because there, the language barrier meant I was always a little bit separate. But I can understand every word people here say to me and it's killing me. Strangers come up to you and beg for water."

In a page-one piece in the L.A. Times, Scott Gold wrote of "the woman who died in a chair, in the middle of the road. Someone covered her with a tarp and left her there." He described how "water is the enemy... It hides snakes, dead, bloated rats and, in the areas with the worst flooding, untold numbers of bloated bodies." In that September 2 story, which ended with Gold alone in his hotel room, crying, the reporter noted that among 23,000 people he saw at the Louisiana Superdome, he counted four white people.

With a bit of prodding from Slate media critic Jack Shafer, reporters and commentators latched onto the glaring inequalities laid bare by the storm, the extraordinary difference that race and class made in how Americans experienced the disaster. TV made clear the black face of the suffering and the evacuation, and print developed the theme, with increasingly compelling work on the two Americas. A September 7 story on the front of the Wall Street Journal described how the nation's loose network of private schools moved to absorb the children of the New Orleans elite, while public school students talked of not returning to the classroom until next year.

Strong accountability reporting popped onto front pages with remarkable speed. In the Washington Post, Michael Powell and Michael Grunwald described the role federal flood insurance and congressional pork have played in encouraging extensive development along highly vulnerable coastlines. In the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Hedges revealed the frustrations of the crew of a massive naval hospital that sat off the Gulf Coast, ready to supply water, food and medical care but stymied by FEMA's failure to act with alacrity.

The Internet made it possible for everyone to join in the game of I told you so. Almost as soon as Katrina's impact became clear, journalists and readers alike looked back at an extraordinarily prescient five-part series that the Times-Picayune had produced in 2002. "It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane," the series, "Washing Away," reported.

"Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day." Reporters John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein wrote that "for those who wait, getting out will become nearly impossible as the few routes out of town grow hopelessly clogged. And 100,000 people without transportation will be especially threatened."

Far from congratulating itself on its past reporting, New Orleans' daily paper heroically charged ahead through the depopulation of its city and the loss of its own headquarters (see "Apocalypse in New Orleans," page 24). Reporters and editors stayed with the mother ship until it lost power and filled with water. Then, with its staff dispersed throughout the region and with help from the New York Times Co.-owned Courier daily in Houma, Louisiana, Newhouse's Times-Picayune posted dispatches on its Web site, www.nola.com. Readers around the world registered 30 million page views in a single day, up from the site's average of 6 million per week. Much of its staff had lost their own homes, but by Friday, the T-P was back in print, publishing about one-fifth of its usual press run and trucking the papers to evacuation shelters and to its suburban subscribers.

Such valiant efforts were repeated all along the coast. Knight Ridder executives, editors and production managers flew in from around the country to help Biloxi's Sun Herald, most of whose staff lost their homes or saw them seriously damaged. Some of the paper's employees and their families slept in the newsroom, while others moved into RVs that the company put in the paper's parking lot. Knight Ridder's Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia handled layout and design and printed the Sun Herald until it could get up and running again. The chain's assistant vice president for news, Bryan Monroe, who pitched in to get the Sun Herald edited and published, wrote of passing out papers in devastated neighborhoods: "It's amazing how grateful people are just to have a newspaper. It brought tears to my eyes. People were like, 'Oh, my God!'"

For evacuees and for those still living along the wrecked coastline, the craving for information lagged only behind thirst and hunger as desperate needs. With power out, newspapers and radio provided the only connection to the outside, the only avenue for morsels of hope and explanations for the paucity of support. In New Orleans, all but one of the local TV stations were still off the air 12 days after the storm hit; CBS affiliate WWL, owned by Belo, managed to stay on, though few in the hardest-hit areas could receive the signal. WWL reporters courageously moved through the city, gathering stories about individual neighborhoods that were then pumped via cable TV throughout Texas so evacuees there could see what was happening back home (see Broadcast Views, page 88).

But it was radio that came to the fore in those first two weeks. Most New Orleans stations were knocked off the air by the storm in what the M Street Journal, an industry newsletter, called "the longest and largest outage of so much broadcast activity in a large market in U.S. radio history." But after losing power the first day, Entercom-owned WWL, the city's powerhouse AM news-talk station, quickly came back on the air under generator power, broadcasting first from its downtown studios, then from an emergency operations center in nearby Jefferson Parish and finally from Clear Channel Radio's studios in Baton Rouge. There, in an unusual cooperative venture among competitors, about 15 stations combined resources to produce one stream of programming delivered over two AM and four FM frequencies under the name United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans. Led by WWL's news staff, the United team kept up a 24-hour flow of news, talk, call-in shows and coverage of government statements and news conferences.

It made for riveting radio, and I found myself listening at all hours, in the car late at night via WWL's booming signal, and online through the station's Webcast. New Orleans' Spanish-language radio stations launched a similar cooperative effort. It was on United radio that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin gave the emotional interview that embarrassed federal officials into stepping up their response. And it was on the radio that the people of New Orleans could hear each other, debating all night long whether it was safe to hold out in drier neighborhoods, offering tips on how to find food and water, helping one another find routes out of town.

Many of those who were left behind live on the wrong side of the digital divide, so radio was their lifeline. But for those who got out on their own, it was the Internet that provided that link, and on nola.com and wwl.com and similar sites across the region, tens of thousands of people reached out in search of missing loved ones (see The Online Frontier, page 86). Nola's "What Happened to My Neighborhood?" message boards filled with hundreds of firsthand accounts by those who stayed behind, and thousands of people across the country posted offers on the site's Homes Available board. At Flickr.com, an enormous archive of hurricane damage photos grew by the hour, and as power came back on in some places, bloggers jumped into action, telling their stories and posting photos of their neighborhoods, churches and homes for friends and strangers alike.

If in the months before Katrina the old media had begun to feel that time was passing them by, the disaster powerfully demonstrated that Americans still need professionals who can move into difficult situations, gather information and dispense it in responsible fashion, with effective storytelling and a clear grasp of the emotional impact of the day's events. The history of media tells us that new forms rarely replace the old ones; rather, the old media adapt to new technologies and expectations.

In the first days after Katrina, newspapers suffering from declining circulation and considerable doubts about their future quickly became the gathering points for unmediated conversations among readers that the Web and bloggers have turned into an important new element of journalism. Although it has become fashionable to say that no one believes the old mainstream media anymore, when times get tough, Americans still turn to those institutions that have built up credibility over the course of decades.

In an exploding information universe, everyone's role changes, but the tried and the trusted still have an edge. That, however, is no excuse for doing things the way we've always done them. Print and TV will retain their more universal appeal only so long as we remember the primary lesson from this or any other huge story: When we stay close to the people we're writing about, when we keep our job as simple as possible and go out to find the stories and report them straight, we're doing right.


For more AJR articles on the coverage of Hurricane Katrina see: "Playing Big," by Rem Rieder and "Apocalypse in New Orleans," by Brian Thevenot