Peabody Awards: Q&A: Standing on the Shoulders of His Staff

May 29, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In a review of the network news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott described NBC anchorman Brian Williams’ work as “Murrow-worthy,” a reference to trailblazing TV newsman Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Wolcott also wrote that while reporting live from New Orleans Mr. Williams “exhibited unfaltering composure, compassion and grit,” and during the crisis became “a nation’s anchor.”

The 65th annual Peabody Awards have also recognized Mr. Williams, honoring the “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” report “After the Storm: The Long Road Back” with an award. The judges applauded the network’s reporting of the storm and its aftermath, writing that NBC’s stated goal was to cover 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.”

Mr. Williams spoke recently with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman, reflecting on the days before Katrina and the world of change afterward. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TelevisionWeek: What’s your reaction to winning the Peabody Award for the “NBC Nightly News'” coverage of hurricane Katrina?

Brian Williams: I’m very happy, but I will accept this only on behalf of the people who drove through standing water to get us diesel fuel and food, the people who worked all day and night to set up a satellite dish on a highway overpass where families were living so we could anchor nightly news. We could not have done our jobs without them. This is truly a team effort. We could not have pumped as much television out of there as we did without so many people working-at times harder than we were-to make it happen.

TVWeek: When you knew that Katrina was taking aim at New Orleans, what were you thinking?

Mr. Williams: The key decision was made by Steve Capus, NBC News president. And, looking back, he moved with greater speed than some civic officials. He called me on a Saturday night. He had just gotten off a conference call with the National Weather Service and he said, “It’s coming. This is a doomsday scenario. It’s going to hit New Orleans. There’s going to be water in the bowl. We’ve got to go.” I was packing for a summer vacation with my family, but my family understands such things. “Dad’s an anchorman. Dad’s a reporter. He’s always gone off to cover whatever story is happening.” I said [to Mr. Capus], “As long as we are going, let’s go all the way. I want to spend Sunday night in the Superdome.” We got the permits and did the legwork, [with the help of] a producer named Heather Allen. She got on the ground and she set up a satellite truck adjacent to the Superdome, and by God, I was in there with those people for that storm.

TVWeek: What was in like in the Superdome that night?

Mr. Williams: It was civil, it was dank, it was scary and I have never seen such low expectations. They were being given the bare minimum in terms of food and water, and zero information. And when I left there, when the storm had blown over just prior to airtime, they had still been given zero information.

TVWeek: Did you feel vulnerable in there?

Mr. Williams: No, I knew the superstructure would protect us. But they had no way of knowing what winds it would sustain. There had never been a good test. There were rumors of 130-mile-per-hour gusts while we were inside, and it was our pictures that told the world the roof had first opened. Those holes that opened in the roof, I was able to take a picture of them with my cellphone camera and broadcast it on the “Today” show. Matt Lauer was talking to me on my cellphone. How my cellphone was working-inside the Superdome in the height of a hurricane-I will never quite know. I was live on “Today,” describing a still picture that I had just sent in of sun and rain coming in through a hole in the roof of the Superdome.

TVWeek: How were you affected personally and professionally by being on the ground during such a cataclysmic storm?

Mr. Williams: It goes on. I just received yesterday gifts from a woman in New Orleans I will never meet, T-shirts for my children with a note reading, “Thank you for sharing your Daddy with New Orleans.” People have been dropping gifts off at our NBC News bureau in New Orleans, which may be the proudest outgrowth of this awful event, the fact that my company backed up its commitment with money and resources. We now have a New Orleans bureau because of this. The lasting legacy is still unfolding. It is how we as a nation deal with all the problems that were exposed by Katrina.

TVWeek: What was the biggest obstacle NBC faced going down there to cover the story?

Mr. Williams: I think supporting human life. At some point we were doing stories saying, “Look, we got shelter in here, diesel fuel, gasoline, food and water. Why can’t the feds? If a television network-for that matter, if six television networks-can get all this material in here, why can’t the feds?” My frustration probably boiled over onto the air Thursday of that week, when FEMA director [Michael] Brown said to me that was the first time he had heard there were crowds inside the convention center. People like to say the media found their voice covering Katrina; I say we never lost it. The difference is that unlike [weapons of mass destruction] and the Iraq war, we were the first responders to this story. We were witnesses, and that is what made Katrina different for the news media. So if you saw people losing their tempers covering this story, it’s because we were surrounded by death. We were surrounded by tragedy.

TVWeek: Critics have written that you are one of the two major voices that emerged from covering Katrina, the other being CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Mr. Williams: Well, I think that’s very flattering. … My voice shakes talking about [awards] because I was not out there in that mud and water looking for awards or looking for compliments. I was exhausted and I still get very incited by the topic. I get upset about it because I saw things, we all saw things, that the president didn’t and the FEMA director did not. And until you’ve seen the bodies of moms and dads and sons and daughters floating in the waters in America’s 25th largest city, you perhaps may not understand the magnitude of what has taken place there.

TVWeek: I read about an incident in which the National Guard tried to keep you and your cameras from filming.

Mr. Williams: I got upset two times. We were on the sidewalk trying to cover a fire and a woman with a law enforcement organization, I forget which, lowered the muzzle of her weapon at us, and that’s a very aggressive stance. And the other time was when I was trying to get pictures of National Guard soldiers taking up their position inside a Brooks Brothers, and I was told to take those cameras across the boulevard. It just took on an eerie air of, “Have we lost control of our own country? What is going on here?” When I arrived at the Superdome, before the storm, I was told, “Hey, you have got to talk to the director of Homeland Security.” And I thought there must be a human in charge here, a person I can talk to. So the whole thing was a strange event. And I think we won’t see its kind again because we can’t ever do that to our fellow citizens again. We learned too valuable a lesson, I have to believe.

TVWeek: What did you learn from this experience?

Mr. Williams: I learned that it’s all right-in fact, necessary-to sometimes be the viewer’s advocate. Sometimes we have to-without crossing a line-speak up about what we see. That notion is as old as journalism itself, and I think H.L. Mencken would completely agree were he alive today.

TVWeek: That is very Edward R. Murrow.

Mr. Williams: I think so, but maybe it had to be relearned. Maybe I had to go through
this experience, because I have been a reporter for a long time but I saw things for the first time during this story. It scared me that this was happening in my beloved country. The only hobby I have is American history. You won’t find a more patriotic person than me, more fascinated in our system of government, and I guess that was part of what people were seeing on the air when I couldn’t believe we were failing these people so spectacularly.

TVWeek: Do you agree with those who say the reaction to Katrina was the antithesis of the reaction to 9/11?

Mr. Williams: Right. Where was the rallying around? We were all watching the same pictures. I’m not into advocacy journalism. I have never shared an opinion on the air. I don’t think it’s anybody’s business and I don’t think it adds to the story. I like my news straight.

TVWeek: You don’t editorialize.

Mr. Williams: Never. But where was the rallying around? Fellow citizens were dying, and they were being failed by their government. So if what we did down there struck anybody as advocacy journalism, that is why.

TVWeek: Are you concerned about the upcoming hurricane season?

Mr. Williams: I will leave global warming to others to debate, but I do believe we are in a weather trend that has given us more severe weather than we are used to, and with all the FEMA blue you see on roofs as you fly over Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, I live in fear we are heading directly into a monster storm season and we are not prepared.

TVWeek: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently in covering Katrina?

Mr. Williams: I would have brought more supplies. I really remember saying to my family, “I’ll see you in a few days.” I thought we would cover it, it would blow over. It was going to be big and catastrophic and noisy, but I was not prepared to be living in a city that lost its ability to care for its citizens. The mayor was telling people, “Go away. We can’t support you here.”

TVWeek: What do you think of stories showing New Orleans is back?

Mr. Williams: It’s disturbing to me. It smacks of journalists who are visiting the French Quarter or the glossier hotels downtown. Come with me to the lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where I can take you on a drive for miles and show you no human life, no commerce. It is still on its knees. And it is not pretty. I am not on a crusade of some kind. That is not the case. But I feel that having been inside that dome, having seen people who are now dead, who didn’t make it, gave us almost a moral cause to stay with this story. Our attention span is too short these days. There’s too high a probability that we will move on to the next thing. We can’t lose New Orleans. It has contributed too greatly to the culture of our country.

TVWeek: What was staff reaction to winning the Peabody?

Mr. Williams: It was enormously gratifying. Awards are terrific, but I’m still going to get up the next day and do my job whether I win or lose. I have to tell you, what the viewers couldn’t see in our coverage was that I was standing on the shoulders of our entire staff. I mean that to the depths of my soul.

TVWeek: You sound very proud of the people you work with.

Mr. Williams: When your life depends on people who you know are trying to drive toward you with a camper or a trailer so you can sleep, rental cars so you can sleep in the back seat, food, military meals ready to eat, bottled water, Gatorade. When your life-life-depends on these people, you develop a very strong bond and affection for them.

TVWeek: Will you be attending the Peabody Awards presentation?

Mr. Williams: I will. Hell, I’d go just to hear [event host] Jon Stewart.