Ah, via Romenesko, one of my favorite things. A story about how nobody’s doing stories about stuff:
After two weeks of watching poor, often black residents of New Orleans struggle to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, NBC News anchor Brian Williams made a bold prediction.
“If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we’ve failed,” Williams said last September, speaking by cell phone from the city.
“I’m going to approach my network to do something in prime time. . . . I don’t know if it’s one hour or two, a town hall meeting with smart, professional people,” he said. “It’s often said that we blew our last chance at a national discussion on race when the Lewinsky scandal broke (and distracted President Bill Clinton). . . . But I do know we have our next opportunity before us.”
But even though Williams has made coverage of Katrina and its aftermath the signature story of his anchor tenure, the expansive, nationwide soul-searching he predicted has not come to pass.
Journalists who have aggressively reported the issue for months agree: Katrina’s aftermath has not sparked the wider national dialogue some expected.
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper also earned praise for his emotive, regular reporting from the region, developing a segment for his evening newscast on rebuilding efforts called “Keeping Them Honest.” But even though Cooper and the channel’s American Morning show will host their programs from New Orleans this week, CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein downplayed the idea of tackling larger social issues in coverage.
“We go in looking for stories, not issues which need to be raised,” said Klein, resisting the notion that Cooper has become a crusader for Katrina victims in his reports. “Our work has not been subjective. . . . Our coverage has been driven by an insistence on getting answers from people who have a lot of explaining to do. . . . We’re sure that in covering those stories, viewers are smart enough to see the issues underneath.”
Even as a host of news outlets marshaled their resources to cover the six-month anniversary of Katrina’s landfall this week (Williams, CBS’s Bob Schieffer and ABC’s Charlie Gibson all anchored evening newscasts from New Orleans), the reports were more specifically focused on the details of disaster and the struggle to rebuild devastated areas.
Williams, who rode out the storm inside New Orleans’ Superdome and kept the Nightly News broadcast focused on the issue for six months, could not be reached this week for comment.
But Andrew Tyndall, an analyst who counts the minutes network newscasts devote to story topics, noted that even though Williams and NBC have spent the most time among broadcast networks on post-Katrina coverage by far, no outlet has devoted much airtime to larger issues. “Coverage of poverty as an issue has been invisible since welfare reform,” said Tyndall, who noted the rise of the stock market in the mid ’90s prompted networks to spend less time on the poor. “I don’t see that Katrina has changed that paradigm.”
Look. Everybody and their damn cousin knew this “national conversation” wasn’t going to happen. We all saw how quickly, after Sept. 11, TV news returned to missing white chicks and health problems of the comfortably well off, as well as the usual rafts of stories about how “drugs are now a problem because suburban kids are dying.” It took about a month. So anybody paying attention would have laid down good money on this whole “new seriousness” lasting not very long at all.
But what really ruffles my fur about this story is that it’s basically a bunch of media people sitting around saying “the media” isn’t doing anything. Well Jesus tits, Mister News Organization Head Chief Person Guy, instead of looking around all self-conscious waiting for somebody else to start talking, why don’t you speak up first? I mean, truly, these guys who are like, “Nobody wanted to talk about it,” what exactly were they waiting for? Permission from God? A booming voice from the sky saying, “Lads, commence the rising?” Being the first to speak up was just too scary, wasn’t it? Much easier to sit back, look over your shoulder, and when nobody specifically on engraved stationery invites you to do your fucking job, blame the apparent lack of interest. Way to go.