Katrina prompts reporters to take gloves back off
NEW YORK ” NBC’s Brian Williams says the lasting legacy of Hurricane Katrina for journalists may be the end of an unusual four-year period of deference to people in power.
There were so many angry, even incredulous, questions put to Bush administration officials about the response to Katrina that the Salon Web site compiled a “Reporters Gone Wild” video clip. Tim Russert, Anderson Cooper, Ted Koppel and Shepard Smith were among the stars.
The mute button seemingly in place since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been turned off.
“By dint of the fact that our country was hit we’ve offered a preponderance of the benefit of the doubt over the past couple of years,” the “Nightly News” anchorman said. “Perhaps we’ve taken something off our fastball and perhaps this is the story that brings a healthy amount of cynicism back to a news media known for it.”
Williams spent much of the past two weeks in New Orleans, huddling in the Superdome with suffering residents and giving one of the first warnings on the “Today” show that the levees had been breached.
Hundreds of reporters, in all media, did heroic work on the Gulf Coast in the deadly storm’s aftermath. None arguably was as financially and symbolically important to his company as the job turned in by Williams.
It could solidify his spot as network news’ top anchor. He was NBC News’ point person at a time its rivals had none, since replacements haven’t been named for the late Peter Jennings at ABC News or Dan Rather at CBS.
“Nightly News” viewership the week after the storm jumped 2.5 million from the week before, its lead over second-place ABC increasing to 1.1 million from 300,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. A Williams-anchored “Dateline NBC” special about Katrina was the most-watched program all week.
When ABC and CBS settle on succession plans, they’ll be playing catch-up.
Williams increased the value of his stock by aggressively seizing an opportunity, said Jeff Alan, author of “Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News.”
“Brian handled this as professionally as any of the reporters down there and maybe more so,” Alan said. “Brian knew how much was at stake here. Brian took his anchor hat off and put his human being hat on in a lot of the broadcasts that I saw.”
Williams said he’s focused on a story that will preoccupy the country for many months and probably play a key role in deciding the nation’s next president.
“I have not seen an inch of my own coverage,” he said. “I have very little sense of it and I’m probably the last judge of my own work. I tried to call them as I saw them. And if I let my emotion or anger get the better of me, what some would have called a failing of a journalist I think should be taken the other way around on this story.”
Pointed criticism of the government response has been posted on his daily Web log, particularly on Labor Day when he wrote about food and water being dropped to survivors: “There was water, there was food, and there were choppers to drop both. Why no one was able to combine them in an air drop is a cruel and criminal mystery of this dark chapter in our recent history. The words ‘failure of imagination’ come to mind.”
His blog also reprinted in full a National Weather Service bulletin from the morning before the storm struck that gave a prescient road map to the destruction, including power outages and water shortages that “will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
Williams said he sensed trouble brewing already that Sunday, Aug. 28. At the Superdome, he saw National Guardsman barking orders at people seeking shelter, and patting down small children and the elderly for weapons. The crowd was angry about being forced to stand in line in the rain even though there was a large overhang a few yards away, he said.
“I went back to my hotel to get a few hours of sleep before they sealed the Dome at 6 the next morning thinking, ‘This is not good,”‘ he said.
He was one of a few reporters stationed at the dome as it degenerated into a house of horrors, and used his cell phone to snap a picture of its damaged roof that was widely circulated on NBC and MSNBC.
“I can’t shake the belief that I got to know people who aren’t with us anymore,” he said.
One imaginative piece was produced simply by using a camcorder at the Baton Rouge airport on Labor Day when Williams and a crew returned, illustrating how the airport itself was filled with hundreds of compelling human stories.
About the only blemish on Williams’ record was NBC’s failure to lead its Aug. 30 “Nightly News” with the levees breaking in New Orleans, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies news content. NBC says that criticism is unfair, since the levee breaches were one of several angles Williams touched upon at the opening of that newscast.
Williams has had a hellish travelogue the past year, including Banda Aceh after the tsunami and a battleground in Mosul, Iraq, filled with the dead and dying. He never thought he’d see such suffering in his own country.
“I measure my words very carefully,” he said. “I guard my opinions very carefully. To me, this was life and death.
“I refuse to believe that anyone I met at the dome has lesser value than anybody in my family that I go home to. I don’t believe that about this country. I don’t want that to be the lesson in this. I was angry.
People were going without and dying in the wealthiest country the world has ever known.”
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