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TV News Wears Its Heart on Its Sleeve

Sep 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Passion is in fashion in reporting on Hurricane Katrina.

That has elicited huzzahs and hosannas from many critics who chorused that electronic journalism has finally found its voice, its cojones and its raison d´etre.

Every TV news executive can condense to a sound bite why emotion and moral outrage became organic and essential in reporting on the natural and governmental disaster wreaked on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

“These were Americans suffering. If there was one hint of delay, we were all upset by it,” Fox VP of News Gathering John Stack said. “This gets back to the true nature of journalism and asking tough questions and holding officials accountable.”

“This energized our reporters because they were witnessing these things firsthand,” said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

The Sept. 4 edition of the highest-rated Sunday newsmaker show, NBC’s “Meet the Press,” epitomized the hold-their-feet-to-the-fire ethic and the raw emotion that can erupt at the most unexpected times when the subject is governmental failure in the wake of Katrina. Moderator Tim Russert was unusually passionate and determined as he grilled Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, citing only criticisms made by Republicans. Later in the same show, Mr. Russert was clearly affected as Jefferson Parish, La., President Aaron Broussard broke into sobs talking about broken promises concerning the rescue of a nursing home resident, who drowned four days after the storm blew through.

So, where others may see subjectivity and feelings permeating Katrina reporting, Mr. Russert sees “example after example of harsh objective reality flying in the face of spin.”

“This is not a time to be shy,” Mr. Russert said.

He said that soon after “Meet the Press” aired, he heard from “loyal Bush supporters saying, ‘Thank you for telling the truth.'” And Mr. Broussard got a visit from disaster officials.

If increased ratings and public interaction via e-mail are any indication, many viewers are, as CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein said, embracing reporters’ exposed passion that “came naturally to everyone who was on the scene.”

“I hope that this lasts forever, this vibe,” said Mr. Klein, who added that he has been talking about “letting it bleed a little bit out there” since he took over CNN last December. “It’s something we’ve been working on for this whole year.”

Most TV news executives caution that Katrina is a unique story and the tenor of reporting on it may not be suitable in many other stories. -“The textbook says the desire [of journalists] should be to be objective and tell both sides of the story, to be fair and balanced,” Fox’s Mr. Stack said. But the TV news executives interviewed for this story agreed that this passionate approach remains essential to continuing coverage of Katrina.

“Something broke down, and that something is government,” Mr. Russert said. “To me, that’s objective reality. It is not taking an ideological position. You are not being disloyal.”