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Lou Pickney's Online Commentary

Losing New Orleans

August 31, 2005

"This is not your run of the mill disaster"
-Michael Brown, Director of FEMA, tonight on CNN's NewsNight With Aaron Brown

"Is this my beginning or is this the end
When will I see you again"
-Three Degrees "When Will I See You Again"

I'm feeling very selfish right now. To me, New Orleans has been a place to go to party, a getaway for debauchery and fun and craziness and excess. And I'm mad that my $175 Southwest Airlines roundtrip party destination has been taken away from me, that the city that I love has been ruined, now polluted with tainted water. But that's me being selfish.

On television, the cable news networks have done their best to tell the story of the people for whom New Orleans isn't an occasional playground, but for whom it's home. I don't know that there's anything that I can write from my apartment in Tampa that can add to the scope of the coverage of what has happened, and is happening, in New Orleans and eastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi and southern Alabama. The damage is so massive, so widespread, and so devastating, that me trying to use the typical adjectives to describe it really doesn't do the situation justice.

New Orleans Superdome, Post-Katrina
The Superdome, post-Katrina.

I talked with my parents tonight. My Dad (who was in Alabama, near Chattanooga, today), told me that he saw a convoy of trucks heading in the direction of the Gulf Coast, filled with power lines and similar equipment, with license plates ranging from Illinois to New York. Help is on the way. And that's certainly good news, in a week where that has been all too lacking for people on the Gulf Coast.

Regarding the TV news coverage, the three major cable news networks (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) have all been strong. I can tell you first-hand from my time as a news producer that it is exhausting when a situation like this arises. On a national network level, I'm sure the exhaustion and pressure increases big time. Here are some thoughts on what I've seen:

-MSNBC's Countdown (with Keith Olbermann) is a very well-produced show. The open to that show is enough to give me chill-bumps. Between the amazing writing, the great video, and Olbermann's strong voice-overs, it's a great package. The "top five stories of the day" format doesn't hold up in this situation (since it's all Hurricane Katrina aftermath), but I can see why my friend Scott Massey has been trying to get me to watch it for so long now.

-CNN's Aaron Brown has done a great job, from what I've seen. His work with Jeanne Meserve on Monday night was quite possibly the most "human" feeling reporting, both from a field phoner and from a legit reaction from New York, that I've seen since the 9/11 attacks. But overall he has had insight and an overview of the situation that has impressed me.

-A big thumbs down goes to Hardball's Chris Matthews for politicizing things today by trying to tie in the hurricane clean-up with his obvious anti-states rights bias. He spoke out about this on the air. Save it for two weeks from now when the situation is more settled. He said (and I'm paraphrasing now) that people talk about states rights, but then this happens and people go calling to the Federal Government for help. The response to that, of course, is that the Federal Government takes the lion's share of the money from the people, so of course states are going to do that. It was an incongruent argument, not to mention an inappropriate one. But it didn't surprise me coming from Matthews. Andrea Mitchell's squawking in agreement didn't do much to help her standing in my eyes, either. Leave the below-the-belt political gains for people like Robert Kennedy, Jr. (who today tried to connect Hurricane Katrina with global warming, ignoring the reality of hurricane cycles).

-I've enjoyed the on-the-scene reporting that Fox News has had from reporters in New Orleans (how Shepard Smith is getting a live feed out of there is a mystery to me). I think of all of the "we can't get a live shot out of there" insanity I went through at WTSP, and in ravaged New Orleans with no electricity, Shep Smith is field anchoring two one-hour live shows in a day. Amazing.

-CNN's Wolf Blitzer does a good job with The Situation Room, but the eight monitors or whatever they have going sometimes is information overload. What screen should I be watching? It's funny when he'll be talking to one guest, then ask them to hold on to talk to a second guest, then ask that guest to hold on to talk with someone in the field. I wonder if he's like that on the phone with call waiting? Only kidding, I know it's producers telling him to do it (though the average viewer doesn't know), but it is a bit much at times. I do like the way they put the location and local time up on the big board when they're talking to someone, but they need to put in there a "CDT" or whatever to keep it in perspective. But that's a little thing, the nitpicking news producer/Virgo in me poking out. Anchoring a three hour juggling act like that isn't easy, and he seems to handle it well.

-The Bill O'Reilly "I'm right, you're wrong, I'll yell at you" formula doesn't work in this scenario. Greta Van Susteren was tops for the night for all news channels last night, and understandably so (though I think O'Reilly had the night off). Van Susteren is pretty sharp, though her delivery is a little grating (just my opinion).

Atlanta price gouging
Price gouging has begun in Atlanta, Georgia.

Additionally, if you live within 500-600 or so miles of New Orleans, you can usually pick up 870 WWL at night (thanks to skywave; it's a radio phenomenon that I won't get into here). Unfortunately I can't get it here in Tampa, I suppose due to the Gulf of Mexico being between me and New Orleans. Also, TV coverage from the city is being streamed online: WWL-TV (CBS) and WDSU (NBC) both have their signals up as of this writing (WWL-TV is up sporadically, while WDSU seems to be up 24/7 thanks to running through their sister station in Orlando, WESH).

In Atlanta, a greedy gas station owned trying jacking up prices to a ridiculous level (see the photo to the right). Thanks to public pressure (and a promise by Georgia's mayor to prosecute price gougers), the price dropped down by $2 a gallon later today, but this drew national attention on cable channels and via the Drudge Report.

One more thing: last night's Big Brother 6 seemed so unimportant and trivial to me since I switched to it following hours of hurricane coverage. Ivette didn't get a call from home, boo hoo. There are people in New Orleans who might never see their families again, who haven't had water or food in days, and who are still trapped on their roofs. It puts the pettiness and whining of that show (which has been really bad this season) even more in perspective. The 9/11 attack made me disinterested in Big Brother 2 (and ultimately I became disinterested in the show until just last year). I don't know that this will be a repeat of that, but the superficialness and shallowness already seems so petty in comparison with the very desperate human tragedies going on right now in the path of Katrina's wrath.

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