Back in the Trenches

In the latest installment of CJR Daily's inside look at news coverage of New Orleans, writer Paul McLeary switches his focus from the Times-Picayune to the rest of the media: the farcical circus, and the tragic necessities.

...I see MSNBC's Rita Cosby walking around in a long-sleeved khaki jacket -- the kind that transmits the message "I'm a working journalist, on assignment." A few minutes later, Ann Curry shows up, again in a khaki vest and long-sleeved shirt. Am I the only one who realizes that it's 95 degrees? And how do they look so fresh, clean and relaxed? ...

The network firepower is showing up because Dick Cheney is supposed to drop by in a little bit..... There's a commotion, and cameramen and television reporters go running toward the end of the staging area (by the Scientology tent, where they're giving out tetanus and hepatitis shots for free) and turn their cameras on someone.

Is it the vice president? Umm, no. It's Ted Koppel, interviewing the city's police chief -- and this is what everyone else is filming. Quite the spectacle -- reporters filming a reporter who's being filmed by his own people as he conducts an interview.

Covering the city on his own, McLeary meets with both hostility and respect, "the kind of wary respect you give to someone who is entirely deranged." He's referring to a Guardsman who's "genuinely astounded that journalists choose to rush headlong into war zones and natural disaster sites without the backing of heavy weaponry and all the protection the government can offer." That's the gonzo view of journalism, but the real hazards -- and rewards -- are more spiritual than physical.

The first time I saw photographers snapping shots of dazed evacuees being unloaded from a truck, I felt offended; it seemed that their very humanity was being exploited. Worse was the camera crew I watched getting a shot of a dead body lying in the street encircled by traffic cones.

But at some point ... it came to me that in order to truly tell the story of the tragedy, it is essential to capture the ugly images. ... [T]o those who feel that the media is exploiting the victims by dwelling on their misfortune, I would ask that they come and smell the stench of death, see the bodies lying for days in the street, witness the looted, abandoned blocks of a great American city. And then -- and only then -- decide whether you want to place limits on what the press can, and cannot report.