The Big Hurt

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Words fail. So last week in New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, pictures told a story too sad to endure but too important not to document in detail. The images we saw from the areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina were as shocking and horrifying as those we saw on 9/11 almost exactly this time four years ago.

The ordeal in New Orleans certainly touched people in our industry, who for years happily trekked to what was once called The Big Easy—for either cable or syndication trade shows—at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

Last week, that was a place where starving, dehydrated refugees huddled—and sometimes died. On TV, we saw a convention center exit door, where, we remembered convention attendees took cigarette breaks and where, last week, a corpse was propped in a wheelchair, covered with a blanket.

“I really don't think we have a vocabulary for this,” said CNN producer Jim Spellman as he reported the “unbelievable and deteriorating” conditions. Television brought this horror story—this disturbingly real, violent and deadly version of Survivor— into our living rooms. It hurt to watch.

The cable news networks and the Weather Channel were invaluable aids. So were radio and television stations in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that managed to stay on the air or operate via the Internet. In New Orleans, the streaming-video newscasts put on by Belo's WWL and Hearst-Argyle's WDSU exhibited a kind of community service that was far beyond brave—and should be noted by those FCC critics who are so sure “big” broadcasters are bad broadcasters. WDSU reporter Ed Reams fled from looters trying to take his camera to barter in the post-hurricane economy. At WLOX Biloxi, owned by Liberty Corp., 10 staffers continued to serve their communities—knowing that all they owned was gone.

Curiously, broadcast networks were slow to grasp the enormity of the story, and although they threw major resources into it, including putting staffers in harm's way, they did not switch to crisis mode, as they did for 9/11.

Perhaps that was because the depth of the crisis did not immediately reveal itself. At first, there were the familiar shots of correspondents in the wind, and the relief that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. But then came floods, the tsunami-like flyovers of total devastation in Mississippi and Louisiana and the bullets from looters. Cable networks had the benefit of a 24-hour news hole and captured the unfolding horror.

CNN also had Jeanne Meserve, who from the beginning was warning that the situation was worse than many knew. Her trembling account of the first night of flooding was full of passion, honesty and fear.

As it always does, the TV business quickly began planning how to use its powerful platform to help. NBC, BET, MTV, VH1 and CMT all arranged fundraising events. The six broadcast networks were set to announce a benefit that would air simultaneously, on Sept. 6, like the one after 9/11. The NAB is working to get all of its member TV and radio stations to set aside time on Sept. 9 to raise $100 million in one day. ABC parent Disney, The Weather Channel and Warner Bros. are offering millions to the American Red Cross.

Help will come. But we also realize sadly that we're talking about New Orleans in the past tense.

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