CJR’s Paul McLeary has an incredible three-part series this week detailing his visit to the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and their struggle to keep the paper publishing — some way, any way — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He went down to the makeshift newsroom at LSU, hastily assembled after they were literally flushed out of their offices, whisked away at the last minuteby newspaper trucks grabbing them from the loading dock as the water seeepd over the front steps, rising and rising. It’s truly an amazing and inspired story of journalism and I’d venture to say heroism: so many of these people were rendered homeless themselves, no doubt counting people they knew among the lost, and yet they stayed ’round the clock to churn out the paper, bringing essential information to residents via their insta-blog at Nola — with the added pressure of keeping the standards up for the, oh, 15 million hits per day (200 million hits clocked thus far). They’ve not only been bringing out the news but opining, hard: the Times-Picayune “Open Letter to President Bush” earlier this month was picked up pretty much everywhere.
Over the course of the series McLeary is in with the staff and out on the streets, reporting what he sees (and implying how he smells — he said he slept in his car and hadn’t showered for at least two days). The entire seires is worth the read, but so, too, are what he had to say about the experience when I asked him about it over email — he said that driving through New Orleans was “the creepiest thing I’ve ever experienced. The city was dead, just completely abandoned.” McLeary and a reporter from Harper’s drove in (without even being ID’d at the checkpoint!) and found a city in total disarray:
We’d hit a puddle we couldn’t see the end of, and have to turn around. There were trees and utility poles and downed wires all over the street, and looted cars in the middle of the road and dogs running around. You could hear them barking from inside the houses. We were talking to two Oklahoma National Guardsmen on Wednesday night, trying to make it downtown, and we could hear looting in this apartment building across the street. They just shrugged and said, “There’s nothing we can do, we’re not going in there at night.”
There were bodies in the street that they would just put traffic cones around so you wouldn’t drive over them. That was tough to see. And the total lack of any sort of coordination in the search and rescue cops was astounding to see. I mean, I left on friday, 10 days after the levees broke, and no one had even attempted to coordinate things. They’d just load up trucks and head out, covering the same streets, and the army, cops, and Mational Guard didn’t even tell each other where they’d been or where they were going. A Times-Pic reporter and I were talking to the head of the 82nd airborne, and he didn’t even know the name of the chief of police! On Thursday!
Over two weeks later and we should be used to these reports but man, they still fill me with disbelief. It left McLeary with some pretty strong opinions, which I will excerpt briefly here with an exhortation to go read the whole series:
After seeing just how desperate the situation is in New Orleans, I’m more convinced than ever that the media, for all the showboating and hotdogging that goes on — and there is plenty that goes on — nonetheless should be given unfettered access to report what they see.
Until they see the bodies in the street, until they watch the starving and the lost being loaded out of military trucks, and until they see people — Americans — covered in sores from wading for days through the fetid water inside their own houses, the American public won’t fully understand the magnitude of the disaster in the Gulf Coast.
And to those who feel that the media is exploiting the victims by dwelling on their misfortune, I would ask that they come and smell the stench of death, see the bodies lying for days in the street, witness the looted, abandoned blocks of a great American city. And then — and only then — decide whether you want to place limits on what the press can, and cannot report.