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TV Journalists Stay on Story, and Say It Will Stay With Them

Times Staff Writer

NBC anchor Brian Williams, who returned to storm-ravaged New Orleans on Thursday for his third trip in as many weeks, said he couldn’t bring himself to stay away from the region for very long.

The experience has also moved him to consider other areas of coverage that he says need to be addressed.

“I will be asking my network to lead a discussion on the issues of class, race, energy, the environment, disaster planning, Iraq -- all those things and more,” Williams said. “This encompasses so many of the major issues of our time.”

Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, the television journalists who covered the devastation remain deeply preoccupied by the story. Their continuing focus on the aftermath and the government’s response suggests that the recovery process will remain in the public eye for months. This week, all the major broadcast and cable news networks said they would maintain an increased presence in the region indefinitely, with some opening bureaus in New Orleans.

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The story also appears to have had a more far-reaching impact on television news. Many correspondents who covered the destruction -- including veteran journalists who have reported on wars and natural disasters like last year’s tsunami in Southeast Asia -- said they were greatly unsettled by the experience. Witnessing the rapid breakdown of relief efforts and security in an American city reshaped their approach to covering everything from hurricanes to homeland security, they said, and reminded them of the role the media play in holding the government accountable.

An unusual tone infused much of the television coverage in the storm’s aftermath, as some correspondents emotionally described the ruin around them and aggressively challenged public officials’ handling of the disaster.

“You’re supposed to be the dispassionate observer when it comes to these events, but you couldn’t help be provoked to outrage by what you saw,” said John Roberts, chief White House correspondent for CBS, who spent nearly two weeks in the region. “There was just no plan to take care of these people whatsoever.”

Roberts doesn’t believe that the press corps has ever “let the administration run roughshod all over us,” as some critics have suggested. But the disparity between what reporters saw on the ground and what officials were saying was “stunning,” he said.

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In the future, “I think we’ll probably be quicker to ask questions,” he added. “I think we’ll be a little bit more skeptical of pronouncements that come from the administration and other levels of government.”

The sight of dead bodies and starving people clamoring for help was made more horrifying by the fact that the disaster was unfolding in the United States, many correspondents said.

“I think back to the tsunami, and I remember being so astonished, 2 1/2 weeks after it hit, to be standing in the capital of Indonesia and see a dead body on the ground,” said ABC anchor and correspondent Bob Woodruff. “I never thought, never in a million years, that I would find something like that in the United States. But 10 days afterward in New Orleans, one of the great cities in America, and there were dead bodies on the ground. It’s tough to have that happen in your own country.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper has remained in the region since the hurricane hit, with no immediate plans to leave.

“Those of us who were here and have had the privilege to cover it, and to witness these triumphs and these tragedies, will never forget it and will carry it with us,” Cooper said. “That’s part of the fear of leaving, that people will forget and coverage will go elsewhere. And there are so many answers we need to get.”

Reporters who have moved onto other stories are still haunted by the images they saw. Fox News correspondent Steve Harrigan will head to Baghdad on Monday for a monthlong stint, but he can’t stop thinking about an elderly couple he saw waiting for help on a New Orleans bridge for days, without food or water.

“You see better conditions in refugee camps,” said Harrigan, who has covered Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Congo and the Middle East, among other conflict-ridden regions. “It really shocked me how inefficient our country was. You find yourself stunned on the air, reporting what you’re seeing.”

At one point, Harrigan said, he stamped his foot on the pavement repeatedly, saying, “This is what people are sleeping on.”

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When Katrina first hit, he was standing in the rain in Gulfport, Miss., ducking flying debris as he described the storm’s onslaught. Now, he’s rethinking that style of weather reporting.

“I think this will change the way I look at hurricanes,” he said. “There has been a sort of dramatic, macho thing about hurricanes where you stand there and get blown around. I think this has really shown the flip side of the tragedy. Now we have a little more perspective of what these things can do to people.”

Other reporters agreed that the experience had altered the way they would now approach stories. CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve, who grew teary on the air as she described panicked people calling for help after the levees broke, said the widespread disarray in New Orleans revealed the real challenges of disaster preparation.

“I learned more about Homeland Security in three days in New Orleans than three years on the beat,” she said.

Williams has reported from places like Baghdad and Banda Aceh, Indonesia, since taking over the NBC anchor chair in December. But watching the despair and chaos that took hold after the hurricane has affected him in a different, very profound, way, he said.

“When I’m not there, I am thinking about it,” he said. “And when I’m there, I’m consumed by it. This story made us witnesses. We beat the first responders.”

Williams is now pondering how the media have covered the government -- and whether journalists have been tough enough.

“I think we’ve always had our voice,” he said. Still, “I do think -- and this is a subject for a long-term study -- the news media have been operating under a loose kind of 9/11 syndrome.

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“Perhaps we are guilty of settling in to too comfortable a journalistic pattern, and perhaps this tragedy did serve as a reminder that this is what we do,” Williams added. “I think too many people had forgotten that. There is a reason we show up after awful events. We really were the viewers’ advocates on this.”


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