September 24, 2005

Exceptional Journalism

Kudos go to the Times-Picayune reporters for their coverage of the insanity of New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina. The American Journalism Review has a remarkable piece by Brian Thevenot about what it was like to cover the story in New Orleans. As someone who reported from Iraq embedded with the Louisana National Guard last January, he says the week after the storm in New Orleans was a more harrowing and far more depressing story.

The last time I'd prayed and cried so hard indeed, at all was in Iraq in January, where I spent a month embedded with Louisiana National Guardsmen, going on combat patrols and attending funerals held for several men at a time killed by the same roadside bombs. All week my colleagues kept asking me to compare the two experiences. The similarities were striking: days that bled one into another, the constant whirr of helicopters, death, the heavy weight of history.

But a week in post-Katrina New Orleans felt like a month in Iraq. Iraq was Iraq. This was home, suddenly plunged into a scene out of "Hotel Rwanda." We've all run out of adequate descriptors, words we couldn't believe appeared on our screens or notepads even as we wrote them: Armageddon, Bedlam, Chaos, Apocalypse, Hell.

The reporters who stayed behind to report on the story of their hometown had a huge job to do. Brian's AJR article is also about his fellow reporters and what they needed to do to tell this story. Besides the difficulties of getting their stories to the new Baton Rouge office without electricity, few working phones and only an occasional connection to the larger world, Brian pinpointed the exceptional work of rookie cop reporter, Trymaine Lee, and how he brought insight into the larger story by focusing on the individual.

He'd instinctively realized what it takes some reporters years to understand and most never will. When the story gets too big to cover, in this case too enormous to even comprehend, you have to focus on the small story: one person, one family, one day, whatever, that personifies the larger whole. You fire the rifle, not the shotgun.

Lee, scribbling on a notepad at McCusker's hot-as-hell West Bank house, wrote this lead: "Lucrece Phillips' sleepless nights are filled with the images of dead babies and women, and young and old men with tattered T-shirts or graying temples, all floating along the streets of the Lower 9th Ward."

Then Lee got out of Phillips' way and let her tell it, quoting her saying: "The rescuers in the boats that picked us up had to push the bodies back with sticks... And there was this little baby. She looked so perfect and so beautiful. I just wanted to scoop her up and breathe life back into her little lungs."

This is remarkable journalism and surely worth a Pulitzer Prize. I hope the reporters and the paper will survive and thrive.

Hat tip to the Sideshow.

Posted by Mary at September 24, 2005 03:04 PM | Media | TrackBack(2) | Technorati links |