Moribund Patient Lurches Awake

What exactly happened to broadcast and cable news last week? On Monday, when Hurricane Katrina touched ground, we did little more than yawn (and, admittedly, giggle a bit) watching station after station slip into numbingly predictable bad-weather mode.

You know the formula: There they were, the intrepid reporters in yellow rainslickers, tethered to poles, whipped around by the rain and wind, screaming above the racket of flying debris. All that overlaid by the dramatic graphics (this time, the satellite image of the swirling white eye of the storm), the horror-movie music, and the fake gravitas of anchors trying to appear like they cared about what was probably another over-hyped story.

But once the storm hit and the levees broke and we had a real catastrophe on our hands — once the story became one of hungry and tired refugees abandoned to their own devices, of a city almost entirely submerged beneath water, of dead bodies floating to the surface, of old people expiring in their wheelchairs, of roving armed gangs terrorizing the bedraggled population — something changed.

Reporters became human.

From Wednesday on, there were many examples of a new anger, a tone of indignation and frustration, creeping into the voices of our coolest and most collected TV personalities. Anderson Cooper cut off Senator Mary Landrieu while she was busy thanking her political allies, telling her that for local people her politicking “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?”

Shepard Smith, of Fox News no less, chased down a police officer, yelling, “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?”

On MSNBC, Joe Scarborough, standing amid the ruins of Biloxi, stared at the camera and said, “What I have been seeing these past few days is nothing short of a national disgrace.”

And every time that Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff or FEMA head Michael Brown (aka “Brownie,” to the president) had the misfortune of facing a newly relentless Tim Russert or an unforgiving Ted Koppel, it was painful — yet gratifying — to watch.

The reactions to this refreshing surge of real journalistic fury came pouring in yesterday.

“Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina,” the BBC declared.

“Journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being,” wrote Howard Kurtz in his column in the Washington Post.

“It was left to reporters embedded in the mayhem to let Americans know that a third world country had suddenly appeared on the Gulf Coast,” wrote David Carr in the New York Times.

And, just like that, at long last, we had reporters telling the news to government, not the other way around.

Like embeds in Iraq who identified (too closely, some would say) with the soldiers they reported on, journalists in New Orleans, feeling the water climbing up their own pant legs, the stench overwhelming their own nostrils, the trapped, hungry and scared gathering all around them, began asking the same questions as the hurricane’s victims. As Kurtz put it, “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?”

But did the press’ response really signify, as both the BBC and the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley put it, the first real awakening of the American media since Watergate? Is this “Katrinagate” a true break from the cheapening of TV journalism that we’ve all endured in recent years?

Certainly it’s gratifying to see reporters becoming proxies for an embattled public, holding the government’s feet to the fire. But it’s way too early to say how much of what we saw this week was just a fleeting emotional response to the horror of the crisis and how much reflected a real and fundamental change in the modus operandi of network news.

The journalistic breakthrough that was Watergate was its investigative ingenuity, in the slow piecing together, day by day, week by week, month by month, of the component parts of a complex story. What happened last week wasn’t anything like that; it was a lot of agitated, incredulous reporters channeling the anger of the stranded people they were among, and delivering it to those who deserved to hear it. But that’s a far cry from the Woodward-and-Bernstein-esque chipping away at a seemingly impervious edifice, one brick at a time, until it collapses.

Newspapers haven’t done a lot better, though they have occasionally dug beneath the surface; a piece in yesterday’s Los Angles Times meticulously documents how FEMA has been undermined in the four years since September 11. It reports, “the agency’s core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003.”

Now that is something worth digging at. In fact, the best way to channel this new spirit of combativeness is to try to get to the root of what caused the multiple human failures that exacerbated the catastrophe.

That won’t get done with tears and screams. Journalists will need to pull out those other oft-neglected tools of the trade: thick-soled shoes, a notebook, a pen, a well-thumbed Rolodex and a limber index finger to flip through thousands of dusty records at dozens of governmental archives. And to heed the advice of Ed Guthman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and legendary former national editor of the Los Angeles Times who was known for periodically calling his sometimes-recalcitrant Washington bureau and booming into the phone: “GOYAKOD! — Get Off Your Ass and Knock on Doors!”

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.