TV cameras turn toward Gulf Coast

Times Staff Writers

The television networks and national cable news outlets Sunday shifted their top talent and reporters from the Republican National Convention here to the Gulf Coast to prepare for Hurricane Gustav’s landfall.

That means John McCain and his campaign will not receive the uninterrupted attention that Barack Obama did during last week’s Democratic National Convention.

But news executives -- much like the presumed Republican presidential nominee himself -- said they had no choice but to follow the potentially damaging events in the South, three years after Hurricane Katrina caught some news organizations flat-footed.


“I don’t even look at it as a matter of fairness,” said Jay Wallace, vice president of news at Fox News. “The prevailing story right now is this storm.”

The political race will be pushed to “page two,” he said.

The three network anchors headed to the hurricane zone. NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles Gibson flew to New Orleans from New York on Sunday morning, and CBS’ Katie Couric jetted from her convention post in St. Paul.

Fox News’ Shepard Smith also traveled to the storm region and CNN’s Anderson Cooper was already in place, arriving last week to cover the third anniversary of Katrina.

All the television news outlets said they were determined to cover both stories. That means the hourlong specials the broadcast networks planned each night at 7 Pacific time from the convention will, at least today, be split between the convention and the storm.

“We’ve got to cover the news,” NBC News President Steve Capus said Sunday. “We’ve deployed in a smart and aggressive way in both places.”

On his way to New Orleans, Williams interviewed McCain after the Republican presidential contender visited Mississippi to review the state’s preparations. Capus said the interview, which aired on “NBC Nightly News,” was an effort to give the candidate and the Republican National Committee their fair share of airtime.

“I think the RNC and the McCain campaign have done a good job approaching this week’s activities with sensitivity, and we’re trying to do the same thing,” Capus said.

News executives said they wanted to be better prepared for Gustav than they were for Katrina. ABC, for instance, sent 18 reporters and anchors to the region, substantially more than were in place before the 2005 hurricane. The network also reserved RVs and buses and positioned food and water for its crews.

“It’s the benefit of hindsight,” said Kate O’Brian, the network’s senior vice president for news. “We know now how bad this can be.”

The news executives said if the storm was less than disastrous, they expected to send their anchors back to the convention in Minnesota.