"We all worked so hard at establishing our credibility," an anonymous NBC News journalist told the Washington Post this weekend, as an internal NBC investigation into the alleged fabulism of Brian Williams continued to widen. At this moment, as the investigative unit delves into Mr. Williams' experiences in Iraq and New Orleans, it might be time for them to examine this question in some depth: When you have won a Peabody and DuPont award for your coverage of the 2005 New Orleans flood, how can you have left out the key question surrounding the whole event?
Anyone who studies journalism quickly learns the five Ws that comprise the essence of a news story: who, what, where, when, and why. NBC and Williams were proud of their efforts in addressing the first four of those questions, but they--along with most of the rest of the New York-based media--lost interest before the fifth question--why did this happen?--could be answered authoritatively.
That moment arrived months after the visiting crews had packed up and left New Orleans. Those few outside journalists who remained either missed the story or were unable to persuade their editors or producers to provide the space or time for it. The first clue was at the end of May 2006, when the then-head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had spent the last four decades building a "hurricane protection system" for New Orleans, accepted responsibility for that system's catastrophic failure. Then came the final reports from two independent forensic engineering investigations into the flood--one from UC Berkeley and the other from LSU . These two teams, working independently, came to strikingly similar conclusions: that a substantial part of the responsibility for the city-wide catastrophe could be laid at the feet of the Army Corps of Engineers, and its decades of misjudgments and misfeasance.
Nearly two thousand New Orleanians died during this event, which the co-author of the Berkeley report dubbed "the greatest man-made engineering catastrophe since Chernobyl." Was that quote ever aired on NBC Nightly News?
There were other aspects of the disaster not covered by Mr. Williams and company. There were the thousands of folks on their roofs for four scorchingly hot days and nights, with minimal supplies of food and water--but they were neither poor nor black, and they were not in the Convention Center or the Superdome. They were the residents of St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, and their plight was not on nightly display, perhaps because their community was and is not close to Interstate 10, which provided easy access to those downtown New Orleans locations.
Working hard to establish credibility might demand finding a way to document those people's experience. What occurred in New Orleans was the near-drowning of a metropolitan area, affecting rich and poor, black, white, Latino, Asian... yet the coverage led it to be characterized as a racial event, which may have influenced how some viewers reacted to what happened to their fellow Americans.
This could all easily be shoved in the "Who Cares?" file except for the fact that, luxuriating in the lack of media exposure, the Army Corps punished no one and got a new $14 billion contract from the Congress to try again to protect New Orleans. NBC News, and its colleagues, have failed to cover the problems with that new system, some of which have been exposed by a local blogger who FOIA'd Corps internal emails during Hurricane Isaac.
NBC News' investigative unit has a unique opportunity to find out why its award-winning journalism fell so short of the mark on one of the biggest domestic stories of this young century. Whether they succeed or fail will be far more important than the ultimate fate of Brian Williams.