On May 6, 1937, in Lakehurst, N.J., radio reporter Herbert Morrison awaited the landing of the Hindenburg, a German airship. His voice was professional as his report began: “Here it comes, ladies and gentlemen, what a great sight it is!”
But suddenly the zeppelin burst into flames. Morrison shouted: “It’s crashing, terrible! This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world! Oh, the humanity!”
Sobs interrupted his words. Morrison finally said, “I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. I can hardly breathe. I’m going to have to stop for a minute. This is the worst thing I have ever witnessed.”
You can hear Morrison’s recording to this day, thanks to the Internet. It still chokes you up, because his grief is so real.
Last week, in the spirit of Morrison, broadcast journalists reported from Hurricane Katrina. The walls between journalist and subject, elite and poor, participant and observer, fell away. All that remained was their shared humanity. Oh, the humanity.
Our culture is tough on television and cable news reporters. Journalists, print and broadcast, have to be fairly smart to make it in this profession. We print journalists can be plain as plugs and no one cares. But the TV folks must be smart and good-looking. They also need to worry about hair and clothes.
In the past, print journalists have made fun of the hurricane gear worn by TV journalists – the ball caps, the worn jeans, the rainproof jackets. And they made fun of their ambitions. Cover a hurricane and ride the winds to a stellar career. Worked for Dan Rather.
As journalists from every major TV news organization rushed to the hurricane’s frontlines, no one expected that the stories from Katrina would differ much from past hurricane reporting. By Tuesday morning, it was clear that Katrina was the worst thing most of the journalists had ever witnessed. They slept in their cars, ate canned food and didn’t complain because the people around them had nothing.
The hurricane reporters moved into the humanity they shared with the hurricane victims. They no longer wore their fake-sincere looks. They had sincerely sad eyes. Some wept openly while listening to survivors’ stories. Others gave people sips from their water bottles, shared their food, offered rides to stranded folks.
The reporters had angry eyes, too. The most powerful footage came from the New Orleans convention center before any real help had arrived. People were dying there, cut off from basic medical care. Babies had gone without diapers for days and were lethargic from lack of formula. The humidity was stifling; water was scarce.
The journalists let the people speak. Most of the victims raged into the camera. But one woman said in a soft voice, “We need help, Sir; we really need help.”
The poor are always prophetic, says theologian Denis Edwards, but “we need to take time to listen and learn.”
The reporters listened and learned. They stayed. And because the government was not yet there, because the relief agencies were not yet there, officials relied on these news reporters to grasp the extent of the horror. Reporters yelled on-camera to these officials: “We made it here. Where are you?” Our country’s slow response was broadcast to the world. I have no doubt this sped up relief efforts.
Sixty-eight years ago at the airship disaster, Morrison composed himself within a few moments. His professional voice returned as he reported on the crash aftermath. The TV reporters are coming back to themselves now, too. In a Tuesday morning report, a young journalist in New Orleans wore the requisite jeans and ball cap. Her makeup was perfect.
I wouldn’t want TV journalists to boo-hoo at every sad story or yell all the time at government officials. But we have become so inured to tragedy, we needed to understand that Katrina was different and worse.
Last week TV news journalists, our modern town criers, helped us understand. They saved lives. I am humbled – and grateful.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.