At Last, Reporters' Feelings Rise to the Surface

Frustration with the government's response to Katrina caused Fox's Shepard Smith to shout at a police officer.
Frustration with the government's response to Katrina caused Fox's Shepard Smith to shout at a police officer. (Fox News Channel)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

Journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being.

As in the weeks after 9/11, news organizations have plunged into the calamity in New Orleans, with reporters chronicling heartbreaking stories under harrowing conditions in a submerged city. Suddenly, there were no more absurdly hyped melodramas like those of Natalee Holloway or Terri Schiavo, just the all-too-real drama of death and destruction left behind by a monster hurricane.

But there were striking flaws in the coverage as well. For the first three days, few journalists mentioned what the pictures made glaringly obvious: that most of the victims of the flooding were poor and black. And in those early days, when reporters were as overwhelmed as anyone by the disaster's magnitude, they seemed more intent on hopscotching from disaster scenes to news conferences than in challenging the tragically slow government response.

Only when the looting, fires, hunger, illness and squalid conditions in places like the Superdome became overwhelming did the coverage turn sharply negative and the reporters' questions more aggressive: Where were the buses, the planes, the food, the police, the promised troops? Where was the planning for a catastrophe that news organizations had been warning about for years?

On television, the frustration boiled over at different times. Fox's Shepard Smith shouted questions at a cop who refused to answer, saying: "What are you going to do with all these people? When is help coming for these people? Is there going to be help? I mean, they're very thirsty. Do you have any idea yet? Nothing? Officer?"

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough reported from Biloxi, Miss.: "What I have been seeing these past few days is nothing short of a national disgrace."

CNN's Anderson Cooper interrupted Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) thanking some of her colleagues, declaring that he had "been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi" and that for people to hear politicians exchanging praise "cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours . . . Do you get the anger that is out here?"

This kind of activist stance, which would have drawn flak had it come from American reporters in Iraq, seemed utterly appropriate when applied to the yawning gap between mounting casualties and reassuring rhetoric. For once, reporters were acting like concerned citizens, not passive observers. And they were letting their emotions show, whether it was ABC's Robin Roberts choking up while recalling a visit to her mother on the Gulf Coast or CNN's Jeanne Meserve crying as she described the dead and injured she had seen.

Maybe, just maybe, journalism needs to bring more passion to the table -- and not just when cable shows are obsessing on the latest missing white woman.

The outraged tone continued yesterday when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tried to deflect questions about his department's performance on the talk show circuit. "It seems to me this has just been a total failure," Bob Schieffer told him on "Face the Nation."

On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert cited President Bush's comment that no one anticipated the breaching of the New Orleans levees, saying: "How could the president be so wrong, so misinformed?" Russert also loudly lectured Chertoff on the dispatching of evacuees to the city's convention center: "There was no water, no food, no beds, no authority there. There was no planning."

The first to blow the whistle on the initially color-blind coverage was Slate media columnist Jack Shafer, who wrote Wednesday: "Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can't make an error without destroying careers. That's a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of [the] anchors could have asked a reporter, 'Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we're seeing are African-American?' "

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