Not Yet, Anyway

There are few things more dramatic in television news than reporting on a hurricane. Giant waves rushing ashore, demolishing all that they encounter. Torrential downpours flooding the streets. Nasty winds lifting away rooftops. Everywhere you look, drama.

Reporting on the aftermath of a hurricane, however, is a lot less exciting. After all, there’s nothing visually stirring about, say, poring through the minutiae of reconstruction contracts. Perhaps that explains why in recent days producers at ABC News have seized onto a seemingly miniscule (albeit scary) aspect of the re-population of New Orleans — specifically, the mold.

ABC kicked off its breathless mold coverage on Wednesday’s “World News Tonight.” “Federal officials issued a warning today about a huge health hazard in the hurricane zone,” said host Elizabeth Vargas. “Mold. It is everywhere in many New Orleans suburbs. Entire neighborhoods may have to be demolished.”


Vargas then turned the story over to correspondent Dean Reynolds, who was on location in the Mold Zone with Gilbert Andry, a homeowner in St. Bernard Parish. “The smell that you have in here,” said Andry, standing amidst the wreckage of his living room. “This is the mold smell.”

Cue shot after shot of brown, splotchy mold.

“And still, it spreads,” reported Reynolds, sounding like a voice-over in a ’50s sci-fi trailer. “Across the walls. And up the stairs.”

So Andry will have to bulldoze his house, right? Well, not exactly. “Andry hopes to restore his home,” reported Reynolds. “But tens of thousands of houses in and around New Orleans are candidates for demolition.”

But surely Andry will face serious, serious health risks just by exposing himself to the mold, right? Well, not exactly. “Children and adults who inhale mold spores are at risk,” reported Reynolds. “Symptoms include watery eyes, runny noses, and difficulty breathing.”

So basically the mold could cause some residents to get … colds? And this warrants an entire feature story on “World News Tonight”? Well, not exactly, again. Apparently, in the eyes of ABC producers, it warrants multiple stories. Yesterday, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Diane Sawyer filed another moldy dispatch, introducing her audience to Michael Wasserman, a New Orleans doctor, whose house is — you guessed it — overrun by mold.

For heightened drama, Dr. Wasserman appeared in his moldy house wearing a surgical mask a la Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.

“You’re wearing a mask,” noted the alert Sawyer. “What does that say about how serious the health hazard is right where you’re standing?”

“Well, there’s a lot of mold in my house, as you can see,” replied Dr. Wasserman. “All over the walls, and the flooring, and the ceiling even has mold. And so, I want to make sure that I’m inhaling as few mold particles as possible. I’d like to avoid getting any sort of allergic problems with mold or even the less common infection problems of inhaling mold into your lungs.”

In case anyone missed the drama of the situation, ABC flashed a graphic on the screen reading, “Monster mold taking over New Orleans.”

We wondered, could there be less here than meets the eye? So we turned to … print.

“There’s a real industry being created around the mold problem — lawyers who’ve written about it call it ‘black gold.’ They see it as the next great asbestos,” Dr. Dorsett Smith, a professor of medicine at Seattle’s University of Washington, told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. “It is the fear factor. You mention the word ‘mold’ and people are afraid.”

Not ABC producers; they know a good thing when they smell it.

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.