On Day 5, in a city short of help and hope, a few shafts of light began to shine through.
At 11:21 a.m., Fox News Channel was the first to carry what may have been the signature image of the day: A convoy of relief vehicles, rumbling and brawny and said to be eight miles long, came streaming off the Crescent City Connection bridge into the swamp of misery that is New Orleans.
Deliverance. Or at least the possibility that the cavalry was finally arriving.
Throughout the day, for the first time all week, other promising pictures emerged from a city described by its mayor on Wednesday night as "hanging by a thread" because of the slow federal response.
Police and National Guardsmen could be seen on some downtown streets. Humvees rolled up to the trapped denizens of the Convention Center. Helicopters, carrying 3,000-pound sandbags, moved in to repair breaches in the city's levees. On CNN, a bulldozer -- looking like a chugging toy in an overhead helicopter shot -- began to push earth back against the ruinous water.
Fox, with by far the day's best reporting, showed exclusive footage shot inside the Superdome. The cavernous interior was dark and so befouled with garbage that you could almost smell the stench through the screen. But the pictures were heartening for what they didn't show. The giant building was empty, no longer a tenuous refuge for thousands. Outside, the exhausted and the bedraggled were rolling away in buses, some to another, far more orderly sports arena, Houston's Astrodome.
Fires -- remarkable amid so much water -- flared throughout, and television, naturally, had to show them. TV loves a good fire, no matter how small or insignificant. New Orleans's fires were certainly dramatic (and one could envision a San Francisco-style contagion of flame engulfing the poor city), but none of these turned out to be much.
Only Fox (again) stayed with one of these mini-stories long enough to reveal anything useful. In one unidentified part of town, a network camera watched as a crew of firefighters clambered onto a roof and began to hose down a blaze in an adjacent building. The image spoke of a return of civil order, and even more grandiosely of man tentatively taking control of his environment.
Here and there, President Bush popped up, touring the devastated Gulf Coast area from both the air and the ground. He wore an expression of deep concern, and his dress and body language -- sleeves rolled up, arms held like a gunslinger's -- suggested a can-do attitude. Bush's presence was, of course, symbolic. And although these symbolic gestures were touching (he, like Bill Clinton before him, seems to be a sincere Hugger-in-Chief), nothing he did or said yesterday approached his inspiring moment after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when he stood atop a rubble pile at the World Trade Center and addressed cheering rescue workers with a bullhorn.
At one point, the ever-grumpy CNN commentator Jack Cafferty, expressing national cynicism about the government's response to the hurricane, asked anchor Wolf Blitzer, "Do you think the arrival of the National Guard and these political photo ops on the Gulf Coast were a coincidence, Wolf?" Blitzer wisely punted.
The most significant image yesterday may have been the one that was missing. Where were all the bodies? After all the talk of thousands of dead, not one appeared throughout the day. This is not to say that the death toll won't be high. But it does suggest that the news networks either couldn't find any, or were primly sparing viewers the worst. CNN kept looping tape of two corpses, including an elderly woman in a wheelchair who apparently died at the Convention Center, although this footage was at least a day old.
And where, for that matter, were the broadcast networks? Except for a brief news conference with Bush, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox passed on coverage of the story, apparently so as not to interrupt their vital daily telecasts of "All My Children" and "The Young and the Restless."
Unlike 9/11, when the broadcasters' news divisions stayed with the story wall-to-wall for a solid week, the networks were mostly AWOL just five days into the biggest natural disaster in American history. If this story doesn't qualify, it's hard to imagine what kind of story would rate the full-time attention of the big broadcasters.
As it was, the cable guys kept dropping commercials into their coverage, interrupting wide-scale human catastrophe for the likes of 1-800-Petmeds and something called Roc Deep Wrinkle Night Creme. A spot for Kia cars, inserted amid reports of suffering and destruction, freakishly carried a jingle with the lyric, "Start having a . . . great life." As if.