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Getting the Look: Journalism in New Orleans



NEW ORLEANS -- It's an expression every experienced journalist gets to know before long. Some of us call it The Look.

It's a tightening of the eyes, especially at the corners. An uneasy, self-conscious laugh. A slightly startled look, quickly covered by an awkward smile.

It's the expression journalists sometimes see when they walk up to someone who knows they are about to report on them. And it's an expression I saw a lot while walking the halls of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (photo credit: Willie Allen Jr. -- Times Staff)

Not to slight the great staffers at the TP. Indeed, they opened their newsroom and their homes to me and photographer Willie Allen in an admirable, selfless way. Hip deep in covering the biggest story of their lives, they nevertheless made time for a journalist who wanted to cover them -- sharing stories of courage, loss and survival that has united them in an awesome task; putting out a great newspaper, day after day.

So, too, did various residents of New Orleans open their lives and their hearts to us, sometimes pulling us aside after seeing our notebooks and camera lenses. Given the slow pace of federal aid and the nation's wandering attention span -- an incredulous Times Picayune story noted Bush devoted 163 words in his State of the Union speech to New Orleans -- they know attention from outside media is their surest chance for jumpstarting new relief efforts.

If we heard it once, we heard it 1,000 times during our brief stay in the Crescent City: You have to see it to believe it. Walking at the 17th St. Canal breach near the city's tony Lakeview neighborhood, Willie and I learned the truth in that statement. While workers struggled to repair the levee, a trickle of water continued to leak onto streets filled with destroyed cars, demolished homes and worse. One house stood in the middle of a residential street, washed from a spot a half block north and several yards east of its current location.

Willie and I spent our final day in New Orleans following a group of TP staffers who gather on Saturdays to help gut the homes of colleagues who need the help. When a home is destroyed by flooding, the owner needs to have the destroyed contents removed and the ruined wall materials pulled off the studs, a service which can cost upwards of $6,000 if done by hired hands. Gathering with breathing masks, heavy tools and a lot of goodwill, about 20 TP staffers convened at two different homes Saturday, breaking up ruined furniture, pulling moldy sheetrock off the walls and helping still-stunned homeowners salvage whatever they could.

It was an infectiously open-hearted scene, emotional enough to inspire Willie and I to help a little after our reporting was done. It may not have been the most objective move -- but after helping lift a few loads of trash onto the curb, we had a better sense of how hard they all are working to get back to zero -- and how long they have left to go.

Delayed by the work and a brief stop for a delicious lunch at the Gumbo Shop -- yes, it's open again, with limited hours -- Willie and I found ourselves scrambling to make the return flight to St. Petersburg. Running into the airport terminal, we knew we were too late for the plane, which was the last flight to Florida that day. But the airline staffer checking bags had wonderful news: the flight we were to board had been delayed 20 minutes at its previous destination. We wouldn't be sleeping in Armstrong Memorial Airport after all.

I like to think it was a reward for some of the good Karma we earned earlier that day.


Given that I was mostly out of the loop last week, I've been catching up on my media news today and found myself asking a few pointed questions. Such as....

1) Don't ABC execs know that getting Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson to back up Elizabeth Vargas while her co-anchor recovers from an attack in Iraq only undermines her authority as the show's anchor? And if Bob Woodruff were the healthy one, would they have called in the old school A-Team like this?

2) What's dumber: a Tampa Tribune reporter admitting she skewed her vote for a prestigious sports award to make sure the candidate she liked won? Or the newspaper pretending that her skewed vote violated a rule that they don't "influence the things we cover," while allowing her and other sportswriters to vote on sports awards -- which, presumably, affect the athletes they cover?

3) As the stories about pedophiles using to troll for victims increases, how long will it be before the online services figures out some way to keep kids out of its raciest features?

4) As I peruse the latest lineup of lame-o Super Bowl commercials -- a Godzilla-like creature which gives birth to Hummer? -- I'm compelled to ask: Why do we keep pretending these spots are any better than the crappy commercial come-ons we endure 364 other days of the year? (My handy AOL service offered the chance to page through all the big Super Bowl commercials this year, confirming my snarky query).

5) Are the guys at absolute geniuses for cultivating acres of free publicity by getting their Super Bowl ad rejected by ABC more than a dozen times? You know the Super Bowl ads are lame when journalists spend as much time writing about the ones that may not air.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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