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.
Read Part I: The Times-Picayune: How They Did It
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
Read Part II: Embedded with the Times -Picayune in New Orleans