Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago tomorrow. While cable networks and broadcasters are filled with specials commemorating the event, count former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez among those who aren’t fans of the coverage. Sanchez was famously fired from the network for comments about Jon Stewart and “a lot of people who run all the other networks.” This morning Sanchez sent the following tweet bashing his former network:
Watching CNN and others brag about their Katrina coverage. I was there. Two words, they sucked. They covered Americans like the enemy.
— Rick Sanchez (@RickSanchezTV) August 28, 2015
We reached out to Sanchez for further comment and he told us a first-hand account of his experience covering the storm for CNN:
I’m sitting here watching, not just CNN but all the stations congratulating themselves like they’re almost breaking their arms trying to pat themselves on the back about what an incredible job they did during Katrina. There is some truth to what was a good effort, but at the same time, we need to do more coverage today that is fact based. The fact of the matter is, there were some real failures there as well. I remember when I was the reporter on the air who first said ‘the levees have broken’ and then we got on a plane and arrived in New Orleans. The first thing we did was, we started doing what I thought was a beautiful thing. It was a humanitarian, journalistic response. Because there are times when journalists have to have their humanitarian hats on while covering a story. We don’t need to apologize for that. There is nothing wrong with putting down your camera and helping a baby or helping a person who is drowning. Or doing whatever you can. At that time, we were literally getting on boats and helping people when we weren’t covering the story. We were doing everything we could to tell the story while being all-hands on deck.
These were desperate times and they were desperate people. Suddenly, in the middle of all that, everything switched and I remember the coverage went from being understanding and humanitarian to being a story about a conflict that was taking place and suddenly those people I was trying to rescue–the victims–suddenly, they stopped being victims. The coverage changed and I remember those of us who were covering the story, and those of us with experience covering hurricanes like myself, I spent my life covering hurricanes. I was here [in Miami] during Andrew. I got the Florida broadcaster of the year award when we covered Hurricane Andrew. I got a letter from President Bush because of my coverage of Andrew. No big deal but I mean, I’ve got experience covering hurricanes.
Suddenly we who were on the ground were all pulled back and CNN instead brought in its war correspondents. They put them on the ground to cover Katrina. Literally. They brought all the war correspondents. The rest of us who were on the ground, with experience covering hurricanes and the news in the United States were pushed back. I think much of what CNN did back then was very well-intentioned. It wasn’t just a reaction, it was a knee-jerk reaction. It was wrong. These were not criminals. Sure, you had some people who were doing some bad things but to suddenly turn the focus of the story into a riot zone or a war zone, and to cover it as such was wholly irresponsible.
It goes back to something I’ll take to my grave. We need more representation in the media. We need different kinds of people, from different kinds of backgrounds with different kinds of experience so they can stand up in that editorial meeting and say, ‘wait a minute. Are we sure we want to tell the story this way? Maybe these people aren’t criminals. Maybe they’re just hungry people who are victims of a storm and want to get food for their families. Maybe they’re not really looting if the tore has been abandoned and the door is open and they’re hungry.’
Instead, we in the media covered the story as if this was some scene in Mogadishu. I thought that was wrong. If you’re going to thump your chest and say ‘look how great we were’ then you also have to take a step back and say, ‘if we had to do it over again, here is what we’d do differently.’