During the first week’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you could see the mainstream TV media slowly (slowly) realize just how tame and lame they had become. In those first few days, before the true, massive horror of the situation had sunk in, it was business as usual: Fox quickly wrapped its coverage in the flag, and MSNBC even provided a count-up clock to inject unnecessary drama (”Hurricane Katrina: three days, six hours!”). Cute, cupcake reporters rambled through New Orleans in shiny new cars and bright, clean suits and informed us, earnestly, that many residents had been baking for days in feces-covered clothes. The coverage always ended with an upbeat spin.
Toward the week’s end, as Katrina and her aftermath were revealed to be the worst U.S. disaster since 9/11, a change occurred. Just as New Orleanians stopped waving from the rooftops at news helicopters and began instead glaring defiantly — are you going to help or just take pictures? — TV reporters started getting mussy, and angry, and actually courted relevance. Many journalists, who’d so chipperly reported from their government-sanctioned cloisters early in the Iraq war, were actually getting real. Race and class issues finally surfaced (with prompting from smart Web columnists like Slate’s Jack Shafer). And the idea of blame took shape. When Louisiana senator Mary L. Landrieu waxed sunny, CNN’s usually amiable Anderson Cooper snapped, ”When [people] hear politicians thanking one another, it cuts them the wrong way right now, because, literally, there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats.” Reporting with equal desperation from outside the New Orleans Convention Center, Fox News’ Shepard Smith was told by Sean Hannity (of all people) to get perspective. Smith shot back, ”That is perspective!”
Of course, in the end, the outrage may have been fueled by the fact that, while information and images are useful, there’s an inherent impotence to news gathering. Reporters can only help so much. As Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard said, weeping, on NBC’s Meet the Press: ”I’m sick of the press conferences — for God’s sake, shut up and send somebody.”