A.M. Shows’ Good Will to Go

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Let the purists debate the academic principles of journalists becoming participants. We love the smell of good will and volunteer sweat in the morning news wars.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” encouraged volunteers to contribute an assortment of sorely needed items, clear debris left by Hurricane Katrina in co-host Robin Roberts’ hard-hit hometown of Pass Christiane, Miss., and prepare a local school to accommodate nearly 1,000 students. It’s the beginning of a year-long commitment to the town by “GMA,” the Salvation Army and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

“It’s just wonderful to see the reaction. For them to see that someone truly cares about them has given them genuine hope,” said Ms. Roberts, whose family had four homes in the area, only one of which is now inhabitable. “It’s uplifting to see the light back in their eyes.”

Meanwhile, NBC’s “Today” show constructed frames for homes to replace those houses in New Orleans lost due to Katrina.

The atmosphere outside the “Today” studio at New York’s Rockefeller Plaza- renamed Humanity Plaza during this effort-was intoxicating and infectious last week: the aroma of fresh-sliced donated lumber, the staccato whine of power saws, the percussive hammering, the ebb and flow of celebrities and just plain folks happy to take advantage of the opportunity to do something to help the hurricane victims. The complicated undertaking had been pulled together in a couple of weeks by “Today,” Habitat for Humanity and Warner Music Group. Leading the NBC News team were NBC News Senior VP Mark Lukasiewicz, who had filled the same space with the sprawling Democracy Plaza display for the presidential election last year, and NBC News Senior VP Phil Griffin, who also is the executive in charge of “Today.”

On a lovely midweek morning, Martha Stewart’s black-clad daughter and “Apprentice” co-star Alexis carried 2-by-4 studs almost as big around as she. “Today” newsreader Ann Curry, who had done her hammering and bruised her shin during that morning’s show, cooed to babies, kissed the lens of a camera aimed by a Habitat worker from Guyana and confided to a reporter and visiting editor that she’s probably not going to cut her hair for Locks of Love, which provides hair prosthetics for children with long-term medical hair loss, until December.

NBC News Project Manager Robert Dembo, his face lightly tanned from supervising the activities in the plaza throughout a near-perfect New York fall week, gave a guided tour that took in the area in which pets rescued from Katrina country were available for adoption-cats were moving much more slowly than dogs-and young volunteers built a doghouse on which they scrawled messages of hope to future inhabitants. Mr. Dembo was particularly taken by a gray cat named Rocket, and NBC News Production Manager Maralyn Gelefsky won the trust of a sleek blond mixed-breed with mismatched eyes.

Mr. Dembo acknowledged, “Our job usually is not to get involved,” but said it was satisfying to be working “in such a way that people can touch it.”

Before the sun set on Manhattan Friday, there would be 32 homes framed (and then broken down for trucking to New Orleans, where Habitat is dealing with constructing the foundations) by people working some 3,000 two-hour shifts and hammering more than a million nails into nearly 17,000 2-by-4 studs. (And there were smaller versions of this al fresco factory in Los Angeles and Jackson, Miss.)

Mr. Griffin, who claimed he can barely hang a wreath, hopes “Make a Difference Today” can ultimately turn out more than 100 homes. “Our goal is to keep the whole project alive,” he said.