Posted by R. Neal
By way of journalism teacher/blogger Bob Stepno, here's the incredible story of how a small band of New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters kept the news coming in the face of incredible adversity:
It had come to this: During the worst natural disaster on American soil and the biggest story in its 168-year history, the Picayune's roughly 200-member city-based editorial staff had been reduced to about a dozen editors, writers and photographers. We'd set out four days earlier, as the rest of the paper evacuated to Baton Rouge and Houma, to cover the storm out of one delivery truck. Since then we'd gathered a canoe, a kayak, two bicycles and several staffers' cars. We'd foraged in journalists' homes for food, water, housing, computers, notebooks and sporadically working landlines. A wind-up radio served as our only connection to fast-breaking news of the storm.
My crying bout that morning had been hardly unique, for myself or for the rest of the New Orleans-based crew. I had watched a woman die on the street. Arkansas National Guardsmen had carted her body away to put with the others inside the food service entrance at the rear of the Convention Center. They'd been murdered, or they'd perished, like the woman in front of me, from simple lack of food, water and medicine - here in America, here in my hometown.
What broke me wasn't the horror but the beauty of the sight just a few feet away, of refugee Anita Roach defiantly belting out gospel standards, leading a chorus of family members and complete strangers. We locked eyes, a poor black woman who had barely escaped death in the Lower 9th Ward and a relatively well-fed white reporter with a dry Uptown house and a rented SUV.
I lost it. My notebook and pen fell to my sides in my limp arms. I mouthed the words "Thank you" as she finished. She smiled and nodded. I walked to her through the filth, and she wrapped me in a bear hug. I sat her down and bled her and her family of the details of their suffering and the strength that now poured out of them in song. I knew then I'd never forget the privilege.
Reporter Brian Thevenot's amazing account is a must read.
During the first days after the storm, the mainstream media almost seemed to find a voice they lost sometime around five years ago. It didn't last long, though. There's little, if any, coverage of the massive rebuilding effort unless there's a scandal or corruption involved, and they don't even seem particularly interested in that. As Wilma tore across Florida, there were the obligatory talking head idiots standing out in the wind and rain (is there some sort of dead pool on who will be the first one killed?), but once the storm passed it's back to business as usual. Hurricanes are routine. Yesterday's storm is already old news. Last month's storm is ancient history.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, on the other hand, is no longer part of mainstream media. It's in a class of its own. Katrina tore the newspaper down to its most basic element - reporting. For anyone paying attention, that reporting may very well have transformed journalism, with heroic reporters and staff leading the way.