On a frigid Friday morning in late January, reporters and
Senate staffers straggled into a scheduled briefing in the U.S. Capitol, most of them taking seats facing the briefing table.
Three of the journalists, all current or former staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, sat down at the table, opening laptops and notebooks as they prepared to tell their stories to people who would convey them to editors and senators.
Features Editor James O’Byrne started with a statement:
“We are not OK.”
For the next hour, the journalists talked about shortcomings in the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, from housing aid to levee construction to the number of congressmen who have yet to visit New Orleans.
Joe Keenan, director of the Senate Daily Press Gallery, where he has worked for 27 years, was in the audience. He said later that he couldn’t recall another instance in his 27 years of employment there of working reporters providing a briefing to fellow journalists and Senate staffers.
“It was odd to do the briefing,” O’Byrne said later, “but no odder than anything else that we’ve done since the storm.”
Katrina put New Orleans journalists in the position of not only reporting on the storm, but advocating for assistance that will help the city, and themselves. For the Times-Picayune journalists, that position has heightened their sensitivity to ethics and objectivity in their reporting and public appearances. Their gauge of how far a reporter and newspaper should push offers guidance to any news organization that is assessing its disaster preparedness.
“Everybody is vulnerable to something,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute. “It’s not specific to New Orleans.”
In August 2002, Times-Picayune environmental writer Mark Schleifstein co-authored a series of articles that predicted the kind of damage a major hurricane could do to New Orleans, including the failure of the levees. Almost exactly three years later, the levees failed, and Schleifstein’s home was filled with 12 feet of water for three weeks. He’s still on the levee beat.
“We’ve been placed in an odd situation,” he said at the Capitol briefing. “I’m going out every day, reporting on a story that I have a vested interest in.”
In an interview afterward, Schleifstein said that doing the briefing was an extension of the changes in his thinking since Katrina.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this,” he said. “Before Katrina, if I had been asked to go do a story about a levee or something that directly affected me, I would have begged off or told an editor that there’s too much of a conflict.
“In this case, there’s nobody (at the Times-Picayune) that doesn’t have that kind of conflict,” Schleifstein said. “We have to recognize what our biases are and attempt to screen them out of our reporting and out of the relationships we have with people.”
O’Byrne said the heightened drive for accuracy pervades reporting, editing and copy-editing at the Times-Picayune.
“Most journalists do objectivity like they breathe,” he said. “Balance and distance is something you do without thinking about it. You usually don’t have to check in your mind any biases you have.
“When we report on Katrina, we have to be extra vigilant,” he said. “We have to be explicit in our conversations with ourselves about whether we’re being fair and balanced. We have to be more explicit in those conversations than most reporters have to be.”
At the same time, the fact that the Times-Picayune staff suffered losses similar to those of the members of the community has given them extraordinary rapport and access with their sources and readers.
“I have good relationships with the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers,” Schleifstein said.
“An equal number of their employees were affected by this, as were our employees.”
In an interview with a Corps of Engineers builder, Schleifstein recalled, “one of the first things that came up was ‘so how did you do?’”
“We sat there and compared notes for a while, how we got our houses gutted, how we got back in, what the effects were on our wives and our children, and what that meant. As much as there is in the whirlwind of the blame game, there’s so much we have in common that it’s often easy to reach through the whirlwind.”
Former Times-Picayune staffers say that just having spent time in New Orleans, even years before Katrina, has given them a special empathy for the city and its people.
Susan Feeney, a senior editor for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” is a former Times-Picayune staffer who found her knowledge of New Orleans’ neighborhoods helpful and heart-breaking when she had a rare stint line-editing NPR stories in the week after Katrina hit. She still struggles with conveying the story.
“We’re good at telling a story about one person’s tragedy,” she said. “We’re not good at telling a story about 100,000 people’s tragedy. I don’t know yet how to get across the hardship.”
O’Byrne said he hears the same thing from reporters who were assigned to New Orleans after Katrina.
“Doing panels around the country, I’ve run into a lot of people from major newspapers and networks who were here in the first few weeks, and to a person, they can’t get this out of their heads,” he said. And yet, “they can’t get their editors to let them do stories.”
NBC Anchor Brian Williams addressed disaster fatigue in January 2006, when he read a series of e-mail messages from viewers who were “sick and tired” of the nightly stories about Katrina’s aftermath.
“Katrina is different,” Williams said in response. “Katrina displaced 2 million Americans. It destroyed 350,000 homes. … Tonight, one of the great American cities is partially in ruins, and many of our fellow citizens are hurting and have nothing left. … And so, while we are reading the mail, we also have a job to do. And a big story to cover. Along with the news around the nation and the world each day, we intend to keep covering it.”
Williams has returned to New Orleans several times in the year since that broadcast, but Katrina is no longer a daily story for NBC, as it is for the Times-Picayune. That is part of what spurred the Times-Picayune journalists to become more active in advocating for their city.
“We write stories in our newspaper, but no one in Washington sees those stories,” O’Byrne said. “We know the limits of our craft in conveying what we experienced, so we have found ourselves in the position of educating people.”
The education efforts include “misery tours,” hosted voluntarily by the staff of the Times-Picayune for anyone who wants to come to New Orleans and see the destruction. Staffers, including editor Jim Amoss, write for other publications about the continuing need for assistance for New Orleans. Schleifstein and O’Byrne travel, showing photos of their own ruined homes and pointing out the shortcomings in the response to their city’s needs.
The educational efforts are “the equivalent of the journalistic efforts we’ve made to convey what happened in New Orleans,” Amoss said. “It is a catastrophe without equal. … It calls for an extraordinary response that has not yet come forward. The generosity of individual people from around the country has been extraordinary, but the response of the federal government has not been commensurate.”
So, in late January, O’Byrne and Schleifstein found themselves in the U.S. Capitol, attempting to educate Senate staffers who may be able to influence their bosses’ votes on disaster relief for New Orleans.
Schleifstein said he was surprised and disappointed that no one asked him why he, as a journalist, was doing a briefing.
“I wanted to make clear why we were on the other side of the table,” he said. “I thought it was important to explain that.
“What is going on in New Orleans is so important that we feel that we have a responsibility as reporters at the Times-Picayune to ensure that accurate information is getting out there and explained in a way that comes from the viewpoint of those that live in the city,” he said.
The journalists’ credibility was exactly what Adam Sharp, communications director for Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, was looking for when he suggested that they do the briefing. A former broadcast journalist, Sharp had seen parts of the Times-Picayune presentation when he traveled last year to the conventions of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Radio-Television News Directors Association to thank them for their coverage of Katrina and the aftermath.
“I knew how compelling it was,” Sharp said. “When people hear the members of Congress or senators from Louisiana telling the story … there is a healthy skepticism: ‘Of course they’re going to say that, they’re trying to get federal funding.’
“I think hearing it from reporters gave people more confidence in what we were telling them,” he said. “I think the reporters and congressional staff there found it rewarding because they heard it outside the normal political context.”
On hearing a description of the briefing, Clark thought for a moment, then said: “My gut reaction is that this is a good thing.”
“I think that unusual circumstances lend themselves to different methods, even unorthodox methods,” Clark said. “Without having attended the briefing, I think the idea that journalists in a government setting are offering information about things they know to be true is an extension of their natural responsibility.
“There are rare occasions when the crush of news affects journalists personally as much as anyone they’re writing about or the people who are reading them. When Hurricane Andrew crushed south Florida, the headline in the Miami Herald was ‘We Need Help’ — not ‘Florida Needs Help,’ not ‘Miami Needs Help.’
“In a case like that, in a case like 9/11, when the twin towers fell down, that dust fell on journalists as well as rank-and-file citizens. In circumstances like this, it’s not that the rules are suspended, but they may be inadequate. New methods may be tried. …
“These journalists in New Orleans have earned the right to step outside the circle.”
In the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, four former staffers of the New Orleans Times-Picayune turned horror into help for their former colleagues.
“We were sitting far away, and our friends were in really horrible conditions,” said Susan Feeney, now a senior editor with National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” “None of us was in a position to drop everything and go there.”
Feeney, based in Washington, got on the phone with former Times-Picayune reporters Bridget O’Brian in New York and Nan Powers Varoga, then in Houston, along with former Times-Picayune graphics designer Wendi Schneider in Denver.
Together, they formed the Friends of the Times-Picayune and started soliciting donations.
“It was clear that people (in New Orleans) just needed money in a hurry,” Feeney said. “None of the banks were open, and the ATMs weren’t working. We just had to get money to them. I remember thinking, ‘if we could just get to $50,000.’”
More than a year later, the Friends of the Times-Picayune has raised more than $275,000. Four rounds of checks have gone to Times-Picayune staffers.
While big media companies stepped up with assistance for their staffs after Katrina, no other group of newspaper alumni have organized to raise money for former colleagues, according to interviews with the executive directors of the state press associations in the five states that border the Gulf of Mexico. (Some of the associations provided help in another way: buying ads in the affected newspapers to replace revenue that was lost when local businesses were destroyed by Katrina.)
The money raised by the Friends of the Times-Picayune is available to anyone who was on the payroll the day Katrina came ashore, whether they worked in the newsroom, classifieds or the pressroom. About 189 people have asked for help, and no one has to prove damage or say what the money will be spent on.
“We decided that we couldn’t be the judge of people’s needs,” Feeney said.
Based on thank-you letters, the recipients have used the money to repair their lives and others’. One recipient said he “splurged” to buy photographs by local artists to support their return to the city; another refurbished a treasured family heirloom. One bought bicycles for kids in the neighborhood.
Some applicants have removed themselves from the Friends’ list, Feeney said, and others have recently asked for help because they had run out of money.
“That is why there is not an end date” for the fundraising, she said.
All of the money goes to applicants. Any costs are absorbed by the four former Times-Picayune staffers and the Bayou Bend branch of Sterling Bank, in Houston, which holds the money on deposit and cuts the checks.
The first calls for donations went to other journalists. People responded, even though contributions were not tax deductible until the National Press Foundation offered to be a conduit for donations. The family foundation of the Newhouses, who own the Times-Picayune, gave $50,000, and other foundations have contributed, Feeney said.
The Friends were buoyed by a Jan. 25 fundraiser in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored with the National Press Foundation and Lipman Hearne, a public relations firm whose managing director, Rodney Ferguson, had taken one of the “misery tours” of New Orleans with a Times-Picayune staffer. About 300 people attended the fundraiser at the Louisiana-themed Acadiana Restaurant, and more than $25,000 was donated.
While none of the checks sent out so far has totaled more than $500, the effort appears to be as meaningful as the cash, Feeney said.
“They are amazed that people care,” she said. “In some ways, that’s sustaining for them.”
As one recipient put it in a letter to the Friends, “The monetary gifts have been great, but the compassion behind them is even better.”