The Washington Post this summer created a bulletin board for staffers to post critiques of the day’s newspaper. On Aug. 26, several days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, this bit of revisionism popped up on the board:
“Mr. Weather would have liked to see a fuller story on the hurricane further forward in the paper, maybe even A-3, with a front page key; it’s the story people woke up to on TV this morning.”
“Mr. Weather,” in the corridors of the Post, is none other than Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., who takes the commonsensical view that, since weather directly affects people, it deserves extensive coverage. Whenever Mother Nature runs amok, the Post is there to document the downed trees, parched land, flooded basements, and roofless trailers. “The impact of weather on people is an important factor and has been since time immemorial,” says Downie.
On the weekend before Katrina hit the Gulf, Downie had his eye on the storm. “I was watching it as it crossed the Florida coast,” he says, noting that he monitors weather developments on the Post Web site and on cable news.
Yet not even a weather-freak helmsman could keep the Post from stumbling out of the gate on Katrina coverage. In its Tuesday, Aug. 30, edition, the paper produced a shallow Day 1 account of the storm, reaching the conclusion that New Orleans had averted disaster: “But the city managed to avoid the worst of the worst. The Mississippi River did not breach New Orleans’s famed levees to any serious degree, at least in part because Katrina veered 15 miles eastward of its predicted track just before landfall,” read the lead story.
And to judge from the Post, there was no crisis brewing on the evacuation front, either. “Those who remained behind were mostly visitors and tourists trapped because the airport had closed,” according to the same story.
Other big papers did better. In its Tuesday edition, the New York Times nailed details about the “overwhelmed levees” and spoke of the “large numbers of people” who were hunkered down in defiance of evacuation orders. The Wall Street Journal, likewise, delivered a notion of the disaster to come, reporting on the breach of a levee that flooded areas where “residents were said to be trapped in attics and on rooftops.” On Wednesday, the nimble Journal dropped a whopper of a story on the demise of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I think we nosed out ahead on the first day and the second day,” says Douglas Blackmon, the Journal’s Atlanta bureau chief.
“We were late to realize how unbelievably catastrophic this was,” says a Post staff writer. “We were the FEMA of newspapers on this one.”
For his part, Downie judges the Post’s Katrina record starting with its coverage on the Web Tuesday and “continuing to this hour.”
Fair enough: Katrina wrought a disaster so vast that many news outlets can rightly claim ownership over big chunks of the story. And by midweek, the Post had flooded the disaster zone with reportorial talent that brought back scoops and narratives on the wreckage. These days, there are upward of 60 Post staffers chipping in on the post-Katrina megastory. Downie credits his colleagues for leading the pack in exploring the political and human dimensions of the hurricane’s aftermath.
Indeed, the vignettes that Post feature writers pulled from flooded New Orleans said more than all the federal, state, and local press conferences combined. A partial survey:
•On Wednesday, Aug. 31, staffer Ann Gerhart waded through knee-deep waters to reach the Superdome, then waded back through ass-deep waters to reach dry land again. In between, she captured the stadium’s atmosphere of squalor and fear: “There are four levels of hell inside the refugee city of the Superdome, home to about 15,000 people since Sunday.”
•Peter Slevin wiggled, drove, or talked his way through “at least” eight checkpoints set up to block journalists, among others, from entering New Orleans. Once within city limits, he drove along elevated highways in search of stories—a fruitful strategy: “Derrick Ordogne, 34, was standing in the lee of a causeway overpass in Metairie, telling how the rising water kept pushing him and his hobbled band of friends farther and farther west. Each time they stopped to wait for help, the water would rise, turning their havens into islands and peninsulas. ‘We spent the night on neutral ground, with campfires and everything. We waited for someone to come pick us up, but nobody came. That’s messed up,’ Ordogne said. ‘We’re just waiting.’”
•And Anne Hull accomplished feats of journalism and humanitarianism in a single outing. After witnessing the despair of a wandering woman and her grandson, captured in the Sept. 3 story “Hitchhiking From Squalor to Anywhere Else,” Hull flagged down a rescue vehicle that provided the first leg in the pair’s journey to a shelter in northern Louisiana. Says Hull: “It’s the most excruciating story I’ve ever covered. In some ways, it’s worse than 9/11 because the suffering is right in front of you.”
Says Downie: “We’ve produced some of the best journalism in the 40 years since I’ve been here.”
Where’s the Outrage?
President George W. Bush has repeatedly called federal rescue efforts in New Orleans and Mississippi “unacceptable.” But the Washington Post’s editorial page won’t go quite that far.
On Thursday, Sept. 1, here’s what the paper’s editorial board had to say about the feds: “So far, the government’s immediate response to the destruction of one of the nation’s most historic cities does seem commensurate with the scale of the disaster.”
The same editorial had trouble mustering even the meekest of rebukes: “[G]iven how frequently the impact of this [hurricane] was predicted, and given the scale of the economic and human catastrophe that has resulted, it is certainly fair to ask questions about disaster preparations.”
Actually, no—it is “certainly fair” to scream about disaster preparations, to cry about them, and to curse the federal government’s indifference to the suffering of indigent New Orleanians.
That’s exactly what regional officials have been doing ever since the levees broke. On the same day that the Post declared a “commensurate” response, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued his now-famous “desperate SOS” and later delivered a choked-up, fed-bashing radio interview. At the same time, his city’s emergency response head called Washington’s response a “national disgrace” and FEMA a rudderless mess.
Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt explains his institution’s aversion of hair-trigger judgments: “We were not interested in sort of jumping on anybody or bashing anybody before the evidence was clear,” he says.
Opinion writers at the New York Times operated under a different evidentiary standard, publishing an editorial that same Thursday titled “Waiting for a Leader.” It described the president as clueless and seeming “casual to the point of carelessness.”
On Friday, the Post dished out more evenhanded mush. On the one hand, it decried a “sluggish initial response” and declared New Orleans “a national tragedy.” But at the same time that everyone else—even Newt Gingrich—was slamming the Bushies, the Post applauded: “The nation’s response must be equal to the need, and President Bush took some steps toward ensuring that it is.”
Point of context: This was the day after Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael D. Brown admitted that the government hadn’t known about the situation at the city’s convention center.
Brown’s failures have drawn the sternest of condemnations; the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for instance, asked for his immediate dismissal. On Monday, the Post had a milder formulation: “FEMA’s director, Michael D. Brown, appears out of his depth.”
Then the editorial laid the groundwork for congressional hearings on the matter: “Katrina is…an ill omen in addition to a disaster in its own right, one whose lessons must be faced once the immediate catastrophe has been addressed.”
So what does it take to draw a full-throated, unequivocal body slam from the Post’s editorialists? “We’re still following the story,” says Hiatt. “I wouldn’t talk hypothetically about what we would write or may write in the future.”
Every news outlet in the land carried the discovery late last week that Fats Domino was alive and well in the wake of Katrina. Yet only the Post had an interview with the R&B legend himself.
Here’s how it happened. Post sports writer Eli Saslow last Friday was at Louisiana State University (LSU) reporting a story on the school’s football team. Through the team’s PR agent, Saslow learned that Domino was shacking up in the two-bedroom apartment of the team’s quarterback, JaMarcus Russell. Turns out that Domino is either a friend or a relative of Russell’s girlfriend.
Domino, 77, was getting his rest on Russell’s couch, with plenty of company—upward of 15 people had taken refuge in the apartment.
Once Saslow had pried Russell’s address from one of his teammates, he hopped in his rental car. When he arrived, he found Domino getting ready to decamp to a new location. He interviewed him on the spot, with the LSU flack, Michael Bonnette, looking over his shoulder. “We’ve lost everything. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I never wanted to leave,” the Post story quoted Domino as saying. “It was God’s will. That’s all I know. I’m worried about all the people in New Orleans.”
Domino’s whereabouts were a scoop because his agent, Al Embry, had reported him missing. Bonnette went back to his office and issued a press release, which AP gobbled up in short order. The next day, Post readers got a better account, complete with Domino’s colorful commentary. “I didn’t feel too scorned,” says Saslow. “It was sort of an added bonus.”
Can You Imagine?
Who at the Post took the most severe beating from Katrina? That would be Ombudsman Michael Getler.
Last September, staff writers Manuel Roig-Franzia and Michael Grunwald wrote a piece on prospects of a New Orleans disaster at the hands of Hurricane Ivan. The piece—titled “Awaiting Ivan in the Big Uneasy; New Orleans Girds For Major Damage”—spoke in the sort of apocalyptic tones that experts now voice in hindsight with respect to Katrina.
Getler called bullshit in one of his weekly memos to Post staffers:
Several readers, including this one, thought the Post got swept over its own verbal sea wall on Wednesday with the A1 story by Michael Grunwald and Manuel Roig-Franzia that led with 10,000 body bags and a warning that 50,000 people could drown and that New Orleans could cease to exist. “You’re talking about the potential loss of a major metropolitan area,” says an emergency manager. Give us a break. Get a grip on the balcony railing. This was worse than cable hype, especially since the story, if you read into it, says the National Hurricane Center expected the storm to swerve toward Mississippi and Alabama.
Grunwald responded by citing a consensus among disaster experts on the city’s vulnerability, and Getler apologized for his remarks. “It was not my finest moment,” he now says.CP