NBC anchor Brian Williams on new Hurricane Katrina documentary: "I'm going to make you sad and I'm going to make you angry"
More than any other national news anchor, Brian Williams has spent serious time covering the Hurricane Katrina story.
Five years ago, eager for the kind of career-defining coverage that makes great news anchors, the NBC anchor joined thousands inside the Superdome, riding out the arrival of Katrina, the massive flooding which followed and the five days of deprivation which followed bungled attempts by the government to aid those trapped by the floodwaters. After that, Williams vowed to keep returning to the area, hoping to keep public attention focused on preventing such a massive failure from occurring again.
He returned to those memories for Hurricane Katrina: the First Five Days, an hourlong look back that time airing at 7 p.m. Sunday as a Dateline NBC special. It kicks off a stream of coverage commemorating the disaster's fifth anniversary, from five days next week anchoring the Nightly News from New Orleans to high profile interviews with celebrities connected to the city such as Brad Pitt and Harry Connick Jr.
We talked Thursday about his experiences then and how the rush of documentaries looking at the five-year anniversary seem to conclude that things haven't gotten much better for the region.
What will we see in your documentary Sunday?
"It transported us right back to that week. You can feel the heat, you can feel the despair, the lawlessness, the panic. And I dunno, I find it very affecting to see it again. I can’t promise viewers a delightful romp. This is not going to be like sitting down and watching Entourage. This takes an emotional investment.”
Can you get viewers to pay attention to Katrina yet again?
“It’s a lot easier to watch Entourage. Jay Leno is a lot more fun every night than what I’ve produced here. I just find that especially in light what’s being asked of the people of Louisiana and Florida and Mississippi, after this oil spill; How much suffering can one region of this country bear? I think we’ve gotta go back and touch that third rail, just briefly. Remember how we felt about our government. And about each other. I’ve since been to Haiti, and there’s a shot of in our (Katrina) documentary of a water drop -- pallets of water dropping off a Black hawk helicopter. As it happens, a one-armed man is unloading the Black Hawk. And it’s a poignant scene. The last time I saw a scene like that, was in Port Au Prince. What keeps getting me angry. And what gets me exercised after living through these tapes again, is that this my country. This wasn’t a third world relief mission. And yet, it looked for all the world like one.”
After Katrina, there were all sorts of promises to ignite conversations on race and class and government laxity in emergencies. It doesn't seem that much of that actually happened.
“That’s exactly how I end the piece. I go into this little soliloquy that was recorded five years ago, once I got back from Katrina and I was still very raw. And I say ‘If five years from now we have not had a national discussion about race, and class and poverty and petroleum' – I don’t know why I threw petroleum in there, but I now sound prescient – 'we in the news media will have failed.' At the end of the documentary I say, that was then, what has happened since? We’ve elected our first African American president but petroleum came roaring back as an issue. And New Orleans has been transformed forever. If you can get everybody’s attention, let me know how. And I don’t mean that in a flip way. Because that’s the business I’m in. Every night, we get the unmitigated attention of between seven and 11 million people. And I’m happy for it – I’m flattered they spend a half hour with us. But any more than that is a frustration in an era where self-guided media is ubiquitous. It’s tough to maintain somebody’s concentration.”
These days, it seems the audience controls so much of where we can go with this issue. If people don’t want to hear about it…
“Right! This is my life -- would you be my therapist, I don’t have one? My long-suffering wife of 23 ½ years has to listen to this. We lament this all the time. The world you and I grew up in – I’m 51 years old. Three channels on TV. The president spoke, you didn’t watch anything else. You wouldn’t think about it. Men landed on the moon, a global event. I’d like to see what kind of audience share it would get today. Getting people’s attention is hard. It’s even harder, when all I can promise is, for brief parts of this documentary, I’m going to make your sad, and I’m going to make you angry. I’m also, hopefully, going to make you think.”
What stands out as a highlight?
“I’m going to go over to do Charlie Rose this afternoon, and one of the things I was going to say is this: I have in my bag here always with me my passport. It’s an incredible document. I’ve got what we in the media call the big Three visas – Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. But I have no stamps to reflect the last two trips I’ve taken – the first to Iraq and the last, to Haiti. Because there was no government – nobody to check in with. Came into Iraq during the dark of night, came into Haiti, slept on the tarmac. That’s how I describe New Orleans that week,. It is a seared image in my head. We grow up pretty supervised in this country. We have a very strong sense of us. And there was no sense of anybody in charge that week. That’s the haunting part of it.
You have committed more time than any network anchor covering this story. Why?
“If you’d been with me in that Superdome – alongside me and met people who literally did not make it to the other end of the week. The same thing would have happened to you. It fused me to New Orleans. I’m a Jersey Shore kid. First visited New Orleans in 1981. Pilot of the Delta Airlines flight from Washington said, 'Welcome to New Orleans Louisiana, you are no longer in the United States of America.' I thought: Cool! This going to be fun. The only American city where you can walk down the street and hear something close to conversational French. It is so rich, it’s given us so much of our culture and music and so much of our wildlife. That’s why.”
Why does this region face this litany of problems?
“I’ve guessed aloud in the past that it’s classicism. A lot of East Coast hotshots don’t vacation in grand isle. They vacation in Nantucket and The Hamptons and Martha; Vineyard. Maybe if they did rent a hour in grand isle, were into sport fishing and Cajun food, they would feel more strongly about it. You’ve got to want to get down to places like grand isle and Venice – fly into New Orleans and you can drive a long way. Luckily, we want to go there. I work for a company that wants me to go and they’ve never turned me down. I don’t know why they’ve been asked to bear a special burden.”