Editors note: News came Wednesday that the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which distinguished itself for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, is about to make significant cuts to its staff and daily print run. Reprinted here is Paul McLeary’s three-part CJR series on the lengths that the Times-Picayune went to, during the storm, to get reported coverage to its readers.

September 2005


Part I: The Times-Picayune: How They Did It

BATON ROUGE — Walk through the front doors of the journalism building at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, make a sharp left, and you’ll find a cramped, noisome roomful of New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers, made homeless by hurricane Katrina, working the story of a lifetime.


It was to LSU that about 60 of the paper’s staff fled after evacuating the city two Tuesdays ago and the university, to its credit, has provided them with laptops, phones and office space ever since. The ad hoc newsroom — perhaps 15 feet wide by 30 feet long — isn’t much to look at, and with the paper’s staff sitting around the outer walls and crowded together at a table in the middle, there is even less room to move. A stash of mouthwash, razors, toothbrushes and toothpaste sit on a cooler as you walk in. Around the tightly-packed rectangle of a room, you’ll find at any one time about 20 staffers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, in front of their laptops, talking on their cellular phones. Whether they’re talking to family members who have fled the state, working story angles, trying to rent hotel rooms or arrange with whom they’re staying that night, they’re all — without exception — still writing about a city that some of them haven’t set foot in for almost two weeks.


And day in and day out, in this cramped and often stuffy environment, arguably some of the most urgent, and personal, journalism in the country is being written.


Weigh the complexities: How does a hometown newspaper write about a city that in effect, no longer exists? How long can a newspaper staff, effectively homeless and running on fumes, continue to hold up? Where does a newspaper turn for advertising revenue when the city it caters to all of a sudden has neither businesses nor subscribers? Can a 168-year old paper, whose initial cover price was a 6 1/4 cent Spanish coin, long survive after being reduced to what amounts to the country’s most tragic metro section?


Answers will be a while coming. Managing editor for news operations Peter Kovacs says that at the moment his only concern is getting the paper out each day, in the face of every obstacle. Contrary to some reports last week that the paper’s owner, Advance Publications, an arm of the Newhouse empire, was going to shut down the paper and just walk away from an untenable investment, the company says it is going to see the Times-Picayune through this upheaveal and out the other side. Indeed, Kovacs says, everyone who was on the payroll before Katrina continues on it, at full pay.


Despite all this, to see the newsroom at LSU is to see the basic elements of journalism — go, see, come back, tell — being practiced at a high level of professionalism and dedication. While the staff looks weary and ragged, they’re doing what reporters do — digging out the facts, one by one by one, and painting a vivid daily picture of the ever-shifting scene. Sitting in the foyer of the journalism building, I watched them walk out of the hot, stuffy little newsroom to gobble a bag of chips, drink some water or conduct a cell phone interview a few feet away from a group of freshly-scrubbed returning students. Many of the staffers are staying with LSU professors or other local residents, and make it into the office when they can. When I left about 9 p.m. last Wednesday night, staffers who had been there all day were still making phone calls, taking dictation from reporters in New Orleans, flipping furiously through their scribbled notes and tapping away at their laptops. They may have a place to sleep, but they appeared in no hurry to get there.


Over lunch on Wednesday at a restaurant in the eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge (a city of 277,000 whose population has swelled by 250,000 since the hurricane), Kovacs recounted how he and his staff escaped their office on Howard Avenue in New Orleans Tuesday morning, after a harrowing night during which the water slowly crept up the front steps of the building. After deciding early in the morning that the water was going to keep coming and that to stay was to put everyone in danger, management wrangled up newspaper delivery trucks to ferry reporters and editors from the loading docks to safety.


Leaving didn’t come without its own worries, according to Kovacs. He remembers thinking at the time that the decision to leave the city would “go down in history as either an act of genius or one of complete cowardice.”


We can answer that question. Since the entire staff made it out alive, since they are daily turning out top-notch journalism that is the envy of editors and reporters for far larger news outlets, and since readership numbers for the paper’s now-famous site, NOLA.com, have soared — Editor & Publisher reported on Friday that the Web site has received over 200 million page views over the past week and a half, or about 15 million a day, up from the 800,000 per day pre-Katrina — it seems safe to say that the decision to move to higher ground but keep publishing was indeed “an act of genius.”


Consider an excerpt from just one story from the Times-Picayune front page of last Thursday. And admire the density and intimacy of detail, not to mention the felicity of the telling:


Makeshift militia patrols Algiers neighborhood


Armed to the teeth, but they haven’t fired a shot


By Susan Langenhennig


Just after dusk on Tuesday night, with the rumble of helicopters and airplanes still overhead, Gareth Stubbs took his spot in a rocking chair on the balcony of an Algiers Point house, a shotgun, bottle of bug spray and a can of Pringles at his feet.


It was night No. 9 of his vigil, the balcony turned into a makeshift watch tower, with five borrowed shotguns, a pistol, a flare gun, an old AK-47 and loads of ammunition strategically placed next to the blankets and pillows where Stubbs, Vinnie Pervel and Gregg Harris have slept every night since Hurricane Katrina slammed into Southeast Louisiana.


When the Times-Picayune first decided to abandon its New Orleans building on that frantic morning of August 30, the initial plan was for everyone to be trucked a few miles out of the city to the paper’s West Bank office, but, like all emergency plans, there was a glitch. After bumping and sloshing through the deepening water to reach the far side, the convoy somehow got separated, (stories differ as to how, why and when), and in the end one group ended up in the town of Houma, with the rest going to LSU. At the same time, there were still reporters stuck inside the city who were unaccounted for. And, as soon as the main group got out, a small number of them decided to turn around and plunge back into the chaos for the simplest of reasons — to report to the outside world what was happening in a city become a watery graveyard.


It’s hard not to recognize this as pure journalistic instinct at its finest. At no point during this whole ordeal has the Picayune staff abandoned their posts. During the storm itself, the paper continued to post on its NOLA.com site right up until employees ran out of their office on Tuesday morning and piled into the backs of trucks that usually hold newspapers, not human beings. And as soon as they were out, they began strategizing about how to get their stories to the public. The edition planned for Wednesday was never printed (the presses were out and new ones hadn’t been found yet), but was posted on the paper’s site as a PDF, just as Thursday’s was.


You would have to be tone deaf to the advantages of familiarity with the battleground not to understand that, in a very real way, the staff of the Picayune were exactly the people one would want covering the story from its earliest hours. This is their city, and they know it’s quirks and corners better than any airlifted out-of-towner ever could. While I was still in Baton Rouge on Wednesday, a reporter for the New Republic who was in Mississippi and Louisiana for several days, told me that the Times-Picayune reporters seemed to be treated with more respect, and possibly given more access, by the authorities because they knew they were locals, and were writing about the destruction of their own backyards. Once I saw them in action in New Orleans myself, I came to agree with this assessment.


In the first hours and days after the storm, it was difficult to get in touch with the reporters in the field, Kovacs said. Cell phone service was spotty and land lines were almost completely down. Reporters in the city would call a staffer in Baton Rouge and, when they could get through, rapidly dictate their stories, since an Internet connection was still a pipe dream. But as time goes on, he says, things get a little bit better. Cell phone service is slowly improving, and the paper is rustling up satellite phones for its staff in the field. Also, after jumping around from place to place for much of the first week, the staff on the scene in the city has finally put down some roots, setting up a command post powered by a gasoline-fueled generator in a staffer’s house. They have one land line, and after writing their stories on laptops, take turns emailing them in. And the paper’s layout is coming together more easily as editors and production staff rely on instant messaging to communicate.


Despite this, of course, it’s still rough going on the ground in New Orleans. Reporters stay in the city for varying amounts of time, as “people have different thresholds for what they can take,” according to Kovacs. Whenever a reporter or photographer comes back to Baton Rouge, Kovacs calls them in to his office to ask what it was like in the city — and more importantly, to see if they’re okay. He has just begun forcing individual staffers to take some time off, so they can reflect on what they’re going through, and take a breather.


During those first violent and uncertain days last week, reporters did with what they had. One thing that helped them was a custom among some hurricane-tested citizens of the city who, to keep their cars away from the rising rain and floodwaters, leave them in elevated parking garages during storms. As a result, the staff in the city used some of their absent colleagues’ undamaged cars to drive around to hotspots. They even confiscated Kovacs’ son’s truck, which he just got back on Wednesday.


Since Friday, the paper has been putting out print editions as well as NOLA.com, each clocking in at about 17 pages. The paper’s September 1 edition, which was printed on The Courier’s presses, ran about 50,000 copies, while starting last Monday it bumped its run to 60,000, a number Kovacs says will have to start rising. Already, trickles of people are beginning to move back into certain pockets of the city’s surrounding communities, and displaced residents upstate are demanding to know where their hometown paper is. At this point, it’s still unclear as to how the Times-Picayune will print more to keep up with increasing demand, as it already seems to be pushing the 20,000-circulation Courier’s production capacity as it is.


As he drove through his new hometown, Kovacs (he’s shopping for a Baton Rouge house to buy; none are for rent and he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to move back to New Orleans) pondered aloud about when and how the paper, and the city, will come back to full flower. “I don’t know if the city’s biggest entities can come back until all of the small ones do,” he said, noting that no one has any idea about when the paper may once again move back into its waterlogged Howard street offices. The problem — and it’s only one of a legion of problems — is that with the city’s residents scattered all over the country, even if some businesses begin to reopen, who will be there to staff them, or to patronize them? And when some big businesses come back, will there be a support structure of delivery services, employees and all the other necessities of running a business? In short, can a city be reborn in pieces, or does the whole thing have to reassemble before it comes alive?


In paging through Wednesday’s 16-page edition — a stack of which sits in the foyer of the LSU journalism building next to a box of junk food and donated t-shirts, which students regard quizzically on their way by — one notices that even now the Times-Picayune contains ads. Entergy, Chase, ExxonMobil, State Farm, BP and WalMart all have paid ad space in the paper (“it’s the only revenue we’ve got,” Kovacs explains). And while the ads were little more than statements of support for those affected by Katrina, they do show that companies haven’t turned tail on the city, or on the Times-Picayune. And so, the paper devoid of a city continues to publish.


Part II: Embedded with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans

We hit the first checkpoint on Highway 10 at about 10 p.m.


I’m with a freelance reporter who is on assignment for a major magazine, and we’re our way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans one night last week when state troopers pull us over and ask who, exactly, we are. The trooper has no idea what CJR Daily is, but when the guy riding shotgun flashes his press credential — National Geographic magazine — she shouts it out to the other troopers and asks him to autograph her yellow police vest, before flippantly wishing us luck.


Welcome to New Orleans.


We soon find ourselves creeping blindly through an endless succession of darkened, flooded, looted and deserted streets, with only our headlights showing the way. The quiet is sporadically punctuated by one- or two-man military checkpoints, each one sending us a different direction to the press staging area in front of Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal Street. Downed power lines, broken trees and abandoned cars loom out of the darkness, and impassable street lakes force us to backtrack or slowly wind around. Every now and again, a stray dog appears at the side of the road, clearly starved. A couple of Oklahoma National Guardsmen, posted across the street from an apartment building from which you can hear the sound of rummaging, (“probably looters” they tell us) advise us that Magazine Street is our best bet in.


But after about 15 blocks on Magazine, we’re stopped by one pissed off New Orleans cop nervously gripping his gun who reroutes us back toward the river, to Tchoupitoulas street, a mostly industrial route which hugs the Mississippi riverfront. Finally, a little after midnight, we hit Canal, which glows from blocks away with the lights of television news crews and their humming, well-stocked Winnebagos. We pull over, walk around to take in what looks like a giant media camping excursion, and sleep the only place we can — the car.


In the morning, we wake to the sound of military vehicles rumbling past and television crews setting up their shots. By 8 a.m., I’m on the cell phone with the Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan. We’re describing what we’re wearing, so we can recognize each other in front of the media spectacle that is Harrah’s.


Duncan has the Times-Picayune’s high-profile New Orleans Saints beat, one of the newspaper’s most-coveted in a football-crazy state. But he also epitomizes the all-hands-on-deck ethos of the Picayune these days. He puts it simply: “As a reporter, how can you not want to cover the biggest story of your life?”


Duncan and about ten other Picayune staffers hole up nights at a co-worker’s empty house a few miles from the staging area. Using a gasoline-powered generator for electricity and fueled themselves by military MRE’s and occasional supply runs from their new home office in Baton Rouge, the staff spreads out each morning to cover the pieces of their hometown that are left to be covered.


On this day, I follow Duncan, the football writer, and Steven Ritea, who covers “a school district that doesn’t exist anymore,” through their daily routine. First thing up is to gather others of the staff and note who is going where. Brett Anderson, who in normal times is the paper’s much-envied restaurant critic, is about as far from his usual beat as it’s possible to get; he’s latching on to a military convoy going out on a search and rescue, while editorial page writer Jarvis DeBerry, equally separated from his usual duties, is heading out to walk through the downtown area to speak with residents who still refuse to leave; he later tells me that some of them claim to have food and water enough for a year, and don’t plan on going anywhere. The rest of the reporters and photographers are already out on their rounds.


I ask Ritea what it’s like covering such an overwhelming story. The answer is — it’s overwhelming. “Normally, I’m used to writing down quotes and saying ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying,’ he says, “but now their problems are real — they’re your problems.” (In a sense, Ritea is lucky; the house he bought just six months ago made through the storm and flood intact.)


Football reporter Duncan, whose house also survived the flood, is working on three story leads today, and we’re going to hit the “11 a.m. follies” — the city government’s daily press briefing — in a couple hours at City Hall. Meantime, I stand back and watch as other journalists jockey for position to scramble onto military trucks and pickups to head out in search of survivors. They’re literally running and shouting to be included, with cameras and notepads flying as soldiers look on, unimpressed.


The amount of firepower at Harrah’s is staggering, with every soldier — and most cops — shouldering M-4 or M-16 rifles. Others, with agency names I’ve never heard of, carry shotguns and sniper rifles, along with a handgun strapped to their side. I notice the 82nd Airborne doesn’t have loaded magazines in their rifles, making them the notable exception to this locked and loaded crowd.


After the Picayune’s staff spreads out, the first order of business for Jeff and Steve is to go to the evacuee medical dropoff center, across from the Convention Center. Television has shown all of us that the Convention Center is, by any standard, an atrocity, and seeing it up close is even worse. A police car sits across the street, its windows smashed, its tires stolen, while mattresses are piled up outside a hotel down the block. The multiple mounds of garbage are astounding, and continue to fester, with no attempt to clean them up in sight. Across from this wreckage sits a small evacuee center, where the military brings in people that they have rescued or had to coax out of their dens. As soon as we’re out of the car, the TP reporters begin interviewing dazed survivors, who look unsure as to where they are, or even who they are. The reporters work the line for a few minutes, getting quotes and names, as a Japanese film crew shows up, conspicuous in their crisp khaki pants and matching blue shirts. A reporter has a microphone in her hand, but I don’t see them try to talk to anyone. They seem at sea, not knowing what to do.


We head back to Harrah’s, where Jeff and Steve interview various local cops and public officials until we break off to head over to the press briefing. It’s there that I meet another Picayune staffer, Trymaine Lee, a police beat reporter who was stuck at City Hall when the storm hit. He stands on the steps next to a downed tree, with about 20 other reporters, waiting for the briefing to begin. The hardest story he has had to report, he says, was an interview with a woman whose family escaped their flooded home by punching a hole in the roof. Once they achieved that perch, they could hear their next-door neighbors making a failed attempt to do the same. The neighbors didn’t made it, and the woman told Lee that when her own family was rescued they had to use sticks to push bodies away from the boat.


After the press conference, we weave our way through the broken streets back to Harrah’s yet again, past more trash and fallen walls and looted stores. Once there, the Times-Picayune reporters set about another round of interviews. Jeff and Steve herd a couple of newly-rotated Picayune reporters into a car to show them the “hot spots,” while I stay behind and survey the scene.


Later in the afternoon, Anderson and a few others come back to the staging area, reporting that nothing happened while out on patrol. The weary staffers all nod in agreement to the notion that people really aren’t being pulled out alive anymore, and that the patrols are a disorganized mess.


The guys work angles on a couple more stories and continue to tirelessly work contacts before finally heading back to the house. The schedule seems to be this: Gather information all day before heading back to the house about 5 p.m. to write, and then try to file by 7. They share one land line to email their stories to Baton Rouge.


At the house, I rejoin them a little after 7, tempted by the promise of beer, and fans powered by their gasoline generator. Once there, I find the staff in the throes of finishing their dispatches, along with writers Gordon Russell and Gwen Filosa who have joined the group. Eight staffers sit on chairs and couches, tapping on their laptops in the thick air of the crowded room, the exhaustion of unrelieved days of work visible on their faces. The street they’re on, like every street, has some debris scattered here and there, but it is quiet; more important, it is passable. The only noise you can hear is the humming of the generator, and the thwack-thwack-thwack of Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters passing overhead. But a few houses down, there’s a blanketed body lying on a porch, its legs bent upward in rigor mortis, with a handwritten prayer tacked to the wall above it. It has been there since the staff had moved in on Sunday, and in a subsequent email with Duncan on Monday (the 12th) he told me it was still there.


It’s at the house that I meet Jim Varney, a distinguished Times-Picayune reporter who has been around the world on assignment, sitting on the stoop having a beer. Exhausted, between slugs of beer, Varney tells me “I’ve done Rwanda and Hurricane Mitch and I’ve been in Iraq twice so I’m used to it — but [until now] it’s never been home.”


Varney had been in the city since Tuesday, and at one point set up a makeshift newsroom in a Royal Street grocery in the French Quarter. “It was one of the only unlooted stores in the Quarter,” he explains. The store had a working phone and an owner with a couple guns, so, early on, for a while his quarters became the Times-Picayune’s New Orleans bureau, from which reporters called the Newhouse Washington bureau — the only place they could get through to — to dictate their dispatches.


“At night you’d hear the squishers,” Varney said — vagabonds and would-be looters walking around the mostly dry Quarter whose shoes squished because they had walked through water to get there.


To scare off the squishers, the reporters in the darkened store would wait until they pressed their faces against the window, then “shove a flashlight in their eyes, so we could see them, but they couldn’t see us.” They left the store the next day after the owner decided that he had to get his family out of the city.


As the night deepens, a former Picayune writer who is now with the Wall Street Journal shows up at the house with a photographer, and we all fish beers out of the cooler, smoke and pass a bottle of rum around. As we chat about various news reports, I learn just how out-on-their-own the Picayune crew really has been. Those of us from outside — me, the Journal reporter and my driving buddy with the National Geographic credential — feed the TP crew days-old news about what is happening in the outside world, and offer them an old New Yorker and the previous day’s New York Times, which are received like bars of gold. I fish in my bag and hand them a sheaf of articles written about the Picayune over the past week, which I had read on the plane ride down to Baton Rouge. These, again, are regarded with a certain wonderment, but I get the feeling they’ll be tossed aside the next morning, once the group suits up and heads back out on the streets.


After a while, some of the reporters head out to another house a few blocks away to spend the night, but as long as the beer holds out the talk continues. Their faces are etched with mental and physical exhaustion, but no one talks of feelings or the psychic toll the disaster has taken. At one point Anderson, the restaurant critic, finishes eating a military MRE and looks around for the bottle of rum. “I need a digestif!” he exclaims.


I spend much of the night listening to Varney and Chris Rose, a longtime Times-Picayune columnist, as they wonder if some of the places in New Orleans that they love so much even exist any more.


It strikes me again, as it had earlier, that the reporters are stunned by each others’ stories of what they had seen that day. Things in New Orleans are so bad that even journalists returning from the wretched trenches with horrific stories are themselves shocked by each successive story they hear from a colleague.


The talk veers wildly, from a funny story to which everyone listens, to small, quieter, one-on-one conversations. Helicopters still buzz overhead, sweeping the streets with searchlights, as mosquitoes bite our arms. At one point the generator sputters out, and it seems no one has the energy to fill it back up with gas. The silence, without the generator, is dense, and after a while someone gets around to starting it back up.


In the middle of all this, Rose remembers that he had heard that a local radio station, WWOZ, had fled the city and set up shop somewhere nearby in order to keep pumping jazz into the battered Crescent City.


Rose grabs his laptop (which has a wireless card) and tunes in. Bending over the computer, staring hazily at the screen (which reads “WWOZ in Exile”) he says, to no one in particular, “WWOZ is back! At least that’s something. WWOZ. At least that’s something, man.”


And for this group of weary reporters, dedicated for days on end to recounting to the world the struggle of their own embattled city to rise from its fetid, watery grave, that was something.


Part III: In New Orleans, Everyone’s a Critic

I’m standing on Convention Center Boulevard at the foot of Canal Street talking to a Michigan National Guardsman about the state of the shattered city, the water displacement capacity of his unit’s vehicles, and how long he’ll be deployed. A cop back in his small hometown, he’s shaken by what he’s seen in New Orleans, and he’s curious about me. I brace for some hostility once he finds out I’m “media,” but it’s not forthcoming. What is forthcoming is, well, respect — the kind of wary respect you give to someone who is entirely deranged.


“I don’t go anywhere without this,” he tells me, patting the loaded M-16 rifle cradled in his arm. “You guys just run around with notepads and pens - you’re all fucking crazy.” He seems genuinely astounded that journalists choose to rush headlong into war zones and natural disaster sites without the backing of heavy weaponry and all the protection the government can offer.


He has a point.


*


The night before: Another reporter and I are at Audubon Park past curfew, conversing by flashlight with a group of Oklahoma National Guardsman. One has a brother-in-law who’s an AP reporter in Dallas, and he asks if we know him. No such luck. The First Sergeant, a burly man wearing sandals and smoking a cigarette, broods about the ongoing looting in the city, then spirals off on an extended rant about his conviction that the media is consciously working to blame the president for the lack of response to the hurricane; it was Governor Blanco who should have called in the Guard sooner, he says. This, of course, is the battle that has been raging for a week or so now, but he didn’t care. He felt that the media was doing a bad job and he was letting us know. He recounted a conversation he had a few days before with his eight-year-old son who had seen the images of troopers and reporters (wearing masks against the stench) out on search-and-rescue boats. “Daddy,” the child asked, “why are the media wearing masks?” “Son,” replied the sergeant, “it’s because they’re the media.”


He gives us a hard stare, but then shows us how to get where we’re going, and offers to let us bivouac with his group until morning, since the streets are dangerous. We decline, and with a round of handshakes, the gift of a couple MRE’s and an offer to have us come back and ride with them the next day, we’re gone.


*


The staging area at Harrah’s casino is heavy with the smell of grilling burgers and gasoline, and the smoke from the grill combined with the heat make for a sweaty mix. Some group has set up a series of long tables where they serve hamburgers, beans, water and soda for free to the military, rescues workers and the media. I’m eating a burger and watching Black Hawks land about a block away on the riverfront when I spot 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley milling about in a loud yellow shirt and khaki pants, his famous earring dangling from his ear. I can tell some of the soldiers get a real kick out of this, and a few walk up to him and shake his hand, which he seems to dismiss with a weak smile.


A little later I see MSNBC’s Rita Cosby walking around in a long-sleeved khaki jacket — the kind that transmits the message “I’m a working journalist, on assignment.” A few minutes later, Ann Curry shows up, again in a khaki vest and long-sleeved shirt. Am I the only one who realizes that it’s 95 degrees? And how do they look so fresh, clean and relaxed? Then I remember — unlike Cosby and Curry, and indeed all the television people here who have comfortable lodgings, I slept in a car the night before and haven’t showered in two days.


The network firepower is showing up because Dick Cheney is supposed to drop by in a little bit, and reporters have already formed a semicircle around the microphones where he’s slated to speak. Two o’clock. No Cheney. Reporters don’t budge from their choice spots. Two-thirty. No Cheney. Three o’clock. There’s a commotion, and cameramen and television reporters go running toward the end of the staging area (by the Scientology tent, where they’re giving out tetanus and hepatitis shots for free) and turn their cameras on someone.


Is it the vice president? Umm, no. It’s Ted Koppel, interviewing the city’s police chief — and this is what everyone else is filming. Quite the spectacle — reporters filming a reporter who’s being filmed by his own people as he conducts an interview.


Three-thirty. Cheney arrives, surrounded by a shouting, jostling surge of camera-toting humanity which seems to suck everyone into its path. The VP is engulfed; he attracts reporters like raw meat attracts flies, and I figure I’ve missed my chance, when, out of nowhere, he’s a few feet away from me, shaking hands with New Orleans cops and trailed by Gov. Blanco, Lynne Cheney and Michael Chertoff. “Get the cops up front, get the cops up front!” a voice cries as Cheney’s handlers physically push local police officers into the vice president’s camera-heavy orbit. He shuffles over by the microphones, shakes a few more hands, and then his people get him out of there — fast.


As Cheney’s people move him out of the staging area as quickly as possible, frustrated reporters who just moments ago thought they had the best spot in front of the microphones (which he didn’t use), frantically start packing up their equipment and fighting with one another to be the first ones on the military trucks following the Humvee into which Cheney has been stuffed. Dozens of cameramen and reporters — at full sprint — run to catch up with the motorcade.


*


The first time I saw photographers snapping shots of dazed evacuees being unloaded from a truck, I felt offended; it seemed that their very humanity was being exploited. Worse was the camera crew I watched getting a shot of a dead body lying in the street encircled by traffic cones.


But at some point — and I think it was after I left — it came to me that in order to truly tell the story of the tragedy, it is essential to capture the ugly images. After seeing just how desperate the situation is in New Orleans, I’m more convinced than ever that the media, for all the showboating and hotdogging that goes on — and there is plenty that goes on — nonetheless should be given unfettered access to report what they see.


Until they see the bodies in the street, until they watch the starving and the lost being loaded out of military trucks, and until they see people — Americans — covered in sores from wading for days through the fetid water inside their own houses, the American public won’t fully understand the magnitude of the disaster in the Gulf Coast.


And to those who feel that the media is exploiting the victims by dwelling on their misfortune, I would ask that they come and smell the stench of death, see the bodies lying for days in the street, witness the looted, abandoned blocks of a great American city. And then — and only then — decide whether you want to place limits on what the press can, and cannot report.


Related:


A snapshot of the Times-Picayune in 2010, five years after Katrina.

Profile of TP columnist Chris Rose, who became the voice of New Orleans’s struggles.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.