For Bruce Katz the biggest moment of his career was also one of the worst of his personal like. Katz is the chief meteorologist for WGNO, Channel 26, the local ABC affiliate. For reasons having everything to do with position on the dial and nothing to do with program quality, the station’s news generally runs fourth in the New Orleans market ratings.
SPECIAL COMMENTARY: Press of TimeDuring the early days following Katrina’s landfall, however, Katz had most of what was left of the New Orleans audience and much of the state to himself. WGNO had joined up with its sister ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge, WBRZ Channel 2, which in turn was connected by cable throughout most of Southern and Central Louisiana where many fleeing New Orleans had settled. Broadcasting live and extemporaneously from WBRZ’s studios the two stations merged their anchors and reporters to provide one powerhouse package. Katz was the centerpiece – the native born weathercaster narrating the horrific live pictures originating from a helicopter hovering over the city. That uncontrolled fire to the left of the screen? It took someone who knows the turf to identify that as the Southern Yacht Club. That break in the levee? Obviously the London Avenue canal. Katz provided reliable, knowledgeable reporting of the sort that some in the local media, and none from the national press, could.
His hour might have been finer except that as he spotted the neighborhoods being flooded he realized that the water was heading toward his home too. Katz was both a reporter and a victim.
As the first year anniversary approaches, Katrina continues to be the dominant story of our times. Pearl Harbor, D-Day, 9/11: Sometimes reporters are thrust in the midst of events that have staggering implications, but seldom do reporters have to be concerned at the same time with their own homes, families and livelihood.
After being snug in their temporary quarters in Baton Rouge, the WGNO staff found a less pleasant situation at home. The building it had just moved to before the storm was no longer open for use. For months, the station would operate from a trailer with its anchors doing live stand-ups from street corners. Hardest hit was WVUE (Fox 8) whose flying-saucer shaped, Mid-City facility could not escape the flood.
Until it could return to its French Quarter home, WWL-TV/Channel 4, operated out of Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Baton Rouge home base. In the early days WWL’s broadcast had nowhere to go other than a Baton Rouge cable channel, but was also streamed over its potent web site. WDSU-TV/Channel 6, operated partially from a sister affiliate in Jackson, Miss., before coming back to its intact Howard Avenue facility. Reporters for The Times-Picayune were scattered throughout. Some found their way back and clustered at the Uptown home of one of their columnists. The newspaper was also temporarily headquartered in Baton Rouge from where, after a few days, it began putting out a limited sized edition.
No voice was louder than that of WWL radio, whose 50,000 clear channel watts reached many of the faraway places to which evacuees had fled. While most other radio stations were downed by the storm, WWL, also operating out of Baton Rouge, combined its on-air personalities with that of other stations to create United Broadcasters. Around the clock call-in talk radio targeted a million displaced people with many complaints and lots of questions to ask.
From the hardships came some remarkable accomplishments. The Times-Picayune was the first to discredit some of the exaggerated stories that had been told by public officials. That was just the beginning of what became exhaustive coverage and analysis. For its Katrina-related coverage, the Picayune would win two Pulitzers and be nominated for a third.
WWL-TV earned a Peabody Award. WDSU substantially increased its coverage, bringing back its noon news and expanding its 10 p.m. news to an hour. Channels 8 and 26 kept pace. Both deserved awards for courage in the face of devastation.
All of the television stations faced personnel losses; all had to revamp their formats. Sports was generally given short shrift to make way for hard news. Sports reporters found themselves out in the muck covering the Super Bowl of survival.
Then there was Geraldo: For the national cable talking heads with nightly shows in need of content, Katrina must have been a blast of fresh air. The saga of Natalee Holloway, the missing teenager in Aruba, had been pushed about as far as it could go without new information.
As though Scud missiles were being fired at the Taliban, Fox Network’s Geraldo Rivera hustled to New Orleans to see the explosions. He broadcast from the Superdome. What he saw was 30,000 people seemingly trapped inside the building: “Let them walk out of here, let them walk the hell out of here!” Rivera sobbed over the air. “Walk to some other town. Walk someplace where you can get help …” The reporter provided aid himself as was revealed when he was shown helping carry a woman in a wheelchair to safety. With Rivera, however, viewers are never sure if they are seeing humanity or hubris,
A media critic for the New York Times thought the latter and accused Rivers of nudging out an Air Force rescue worker so that he could get in the camera shot. That sparked an angry denial so that by the time the story reached Fox’s Bill O’Reilly’s show the controversy had become one of the liberal New York Times versus the conservative Fox network. (O’Reilly speaking to Rivera about the Times reviewer: “She basically pits you in a position where you’re exploiting a woman’s horror for your own self-aggrandizement. You know, I would think about suing her if I were you.” )
Subsequent sleuthing seemed to justify Rivera’s defense. Though he was unfairly maligned, he nevertheless scored a victory. Remember the hurricane and the victims? The story had shifted to become about Geraldo
At least Rivera stood on solid ground. Journalist Michelle Konsinski reported on NBC’s “Today” show from a canoe in downtown New Orleans. The image was striking until two men happened to walk by and it was obvious she was docked in only a few inches of water. Konsinski later told a newspaper that they had to do it in shallow water for technical reasons but, she assured, we weren’t trying to deceive anyone.
All the networks covered the story with vigor. (NBC’s Brian Williams even anchored his Saturday news broadcast from New Orleans two days before Katrina hit.) CNN came to town and never left, eventually opening a New Orleans news bureau to cover what will be the ongoing story of recovery. Anderson Cooper sightings became as common as Carnival beads snared on tree limbs. National Public Radio which, absent the luxury of pictures needs to rely on a well-told story, rightfully sensed the city to be a mother lode of stories to tell and has also maintained a presence.
Network reporters were often confused geographically, a common mistake being to describe the business district with the French Quarter. And if reporters from any medium relayed inaccurate information it was often because their reliable sources were not so reliable. When Police Chief Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey there might be 10,000 deaths, that was news. Or when authorities talked about rape and pillage in the dome, the stories had to be told. Only there was no way to substantiate the official claims and the information most often was wrong.
Despite the hell and high water there were many fine journalistic moments. Selecting one as the very best seems like an impossible challenge, but the choice comes easy. If the mission of journalism, especially at as time of crisis, is to inform and to motivate people and to effect change, nothing was as powerful as what appeared on the morning of December 11, 2005. Far away from the mold, destruction and the smell of decay came an editorial in the New York Times headlined “Death of an American City.”
I confess to still getting teary-eyed every time I read the opening paragraphs:
We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.
We said this wouldn’t happen. President Bush said it wouldn’t happen. He stood in Jackson Square and said, “There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans.” But it has been over three months since Hurricane Katrina struck and the city is in complete shambles.
After detailing promises made and what still needed to be done, the editorial was equally stirring in its conclusion.
If the rest of the nation has decided it is too expensive to give the people of New Orleans a chance at renewal, we have to tell them so. We must tell them we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities.
Our nation would then look like a feeble giant indeed. But whether we admit it or not, this is our choice to make. We decide whether New Orleans lives or dies.
Here was the power of the word aimed dead-on at the powerful. The editorial likely influenced decision makers in Washington and those that influenced them. Ultimately the federal government proved to be a generous provider.
Tragedy can prick open the worst of journalism but it can also inspire the very best. Overall the Katrina disaster was a well-told story, with the greatest regret being that the story had to be told at all.