Peabody Awards: Katrina Disaster Tests TV’s Mettle

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

It is said that it’s when the chips are down that you are truly tested. That was surely the case this past year when Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, cut a swath through New Orleans and wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast. Katrina’s destruction was devastating, a natural disaster unmatched in American history. The storm’s wrath was extraordinary, but so too was the network and local news response to her fury. The way some of the media rose to the occasion to cover every aspect before, during and after Katrina was in many cases heroic.

The 65th annual George Foster Peabody Awards have cited two local stations, WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Miss., and WWL-TV in New Orleans, for their comprehensive and continuous coverage of Hurricane Katrina, during the storm and throughout its aftermath. In addition, national news organizations CNN and “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” were recognized for their exemplary work reporting on the storm.

The Peabody Award is considered by many to be the most prestigious award in electronic media, akin to the Pulitzer Prize for print journalism. Created in 1940 at the University of Georgia, the award was named in honor of George Foster Peabody, a Georgia philanthropist, whose daughter Marjorie Peabody Waite commissioned the design of the famous bronze medallion.

About 30 Peabody Awards are presented each year, chosen from more than 1,000 entries. A committee of experts reviews the submissions looking for the best work by radio and television networks, stations, cable television organizations, content producers and individuals. In the panel’s review of 2005, the media coverage of Katrina stood out. As Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson told USA Today, “The media rose to the occasion. [They] shone their light on the desolation and the needy, and kept it focused there until the cavalry finally began to arrive.”

According to the Peabody judges, WWL earned its award for courage in the face of the storm. WWL was the only New Orleans station to broadcast to the Crescent City during and after the storm, never once going off the air. In Biloxi, WLOX also kept broadcasting, continuing to serve the community even after the station’s roof flew off and WLOX workers were left to cobble together a makeshift studio to stay on the air.

“We are extremely proud of WWL’s extraordinary efforts, and this Peabody Award is truly well deserved,” said Dunia Shive, president of media operations for station owner Belo Corp. “Belo’s WWL employees overcame tremendous operational obstacles through advance planning and a fierce determination to get their jobs done.”

On the national platform, “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” was an award winner for its comprehensive reporting and CNN distinguished itself as never before. Peabody Awards Director Horace Newcomb commended CNN, calling it “the go-to channel for the latest news, no matter the time.”

Mr. Newcomb expressed an opinion held by many about CNN’s indefatigable work on Katrina. In anticipation of the hurricane, he said, the network “deployed more than 200 anchors, correspondents, producers and crew to Louisiana and Mississippi … along with six satellite trucks, six videophones and six digital news-gathering kits.” Because of Katrina, CNN opened a Gulf Coast bureau to provide ongoing reporting during the long aftermath, and via the CNN.com Web portal the network served more than 33.2 million video streams and more than 572 million page views within a week of the tragedy.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper emerged as a major news presence. His intense style and sensitive reporting stood out. Mr. Cooper allowed his feelings to show, in particular in an interview with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana on Sept. 1. When the lawmaker responded to Mr. Cooper’s questions in a glib, evasive manner-and then thanked President Bush for his “strong statements of support and comfort”-the CNN reporter reacted with anger.

“I got to tell you,” he said, “there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians … thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now.” Mr. Cooper’s exchange with Sen. Landrieu made headlines.

“Just as we had the ‘Scud Stud’ [foreign correspondent Arthur Kent] in the … Gulf War, Hurricane Katrina gave us the ‘Hurricane Hunk,’ Anderson Cooper,” said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” earned its Peabody Award specifically for “After the Storm: The Long Road Back,” the newscast’s comprehensive coverage of New Orleans and the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina. The Peabody committee wrote that NBC News’ “stated goal was to cover the aftermath of Katrina ‘with as many resources and as much time and intensity’ as it had devoted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This commitment on the part of a broadcast network resulted in extraordinary coverage and analysis.”

“This is an enormous honor, a huge recognition of the coverage of a news story that has become a major commitment of this news division,” said Mr. Williams, the program’s anchor and managing editor of NBC News. Mr. Williams went to New Orleans and was among the first to report on the horrific conditions in the Superdome.

Mr. Williams shared credit for the Peabody Award with his team. “This is a proud moment for ‘NBC Nightly News’ and I am honored to be a part of this team of journalists,” he said.

On the local level, Mr. Felling said, “The winning news stations did something old school: They provided their audience with a service and showed they were committed to more than just the usual the-escalator-at-the-mall-could-kill-you stories. And by keeping their Web sites current, they brought everyone into the harsh reality in more detail than even the cable networks could allow.”

Jon Stewart, a two-time Peabody Award winner for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” will host the award presentation.

65th Annual Peabody Awards

What: George Foster Peabody Awards presentation luncheon

When: June 5

Where: Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York

Who: Jon Stewart will host

For the complete list of winners, go to peabody.uga.edu.