Media people like to believe they were put on Earth to think big thoughts about great global issues, a la Walter Lippmann.
But in our hearts, we're really just storm chasers.
As the last two weeks have shown, natural disasters speak to us in a way that no G-8 summit ever could. We're in that tiny club of oddballs who are at their best in the absolute worst of human circumstances. All that pain and death paradoxically make us come alive.
It may sound ghoulish, but it's really not a bad thing. Hurricane Katrina let news people step into classic roles that journalists have been playing since time began. They're roles that American reporters sadly don't get to play very often any more. Some of the verve and sense of mission that's been missing from this business for a long time has suddenly returned.
Before the feeling goes away, let's take a moment to appreciate Katrina's gifts to the media. The story has allowed us to:
1. Be Weather Heroes. Weather journalism occupies a strange little corner of the modern media. It's a subject everyone cares about, and it plays to journalists' natural love of change and novelty. But because run-of-the-mill weather has no significant impact on the economy or politics, it lacks gravitas. It's shunted off to the inside pages or to the end of the broadcast.
However, when the weather gets dramatic and deadly, everyone, from the lowliest scribe to the mightiest anchor, craves a stand-up with bent palms. Extreme weather is refreshing for journalists because, unlike so much of what we cover—the legislative process, the merits of Supreme Court nominees—it's not open to argument. A hurricane has no gray area. It either happens or it doesn't; the damage is done or not.
Because Katrina struck New Orleans in a delayed way (the problem wasn't so much the storm itself as the floods that followed) the reporters who flocked to that city couldn't indulge their taste for daredevil Big-Storm reportage. But the after-crisis made up for this. Watching NBC's Carl Quintanilla ditch the story he was pursuing by airboat in order to save an old man trapped in his house was weather journalism taken to a dashing new level of adventure. There were many other instances of the old Dan Rather model of weather-voyeur morphing into something closer to rescue hero.
2. Defend the Poor Against the Powerful. It's a skill we've nearly lost, and for an obvious reason: Today, the media are the powerful. Leading journalists have more in common, socially and culturally, with your average hedge-fund manager than with anyone living below the poverty line. National media types in particular live in a world so completely removed from the underclass, they tend to forget it exists. Thus, although many millions of Americans live in real poverty, the media consumer doesn't meet them very often. Katrina put the poor in a place where they couldn't be ignored, right in the middle of a gigantic story.
The resulting indignation among journalists covering the crisis—the spectacle of them taking senators and Cabinet secretaries to the woodshed—was in one sense an excellent departure from business as usual. But in another way, it was depressing. Do we care about impoverished Americans only when they're in our faces, literally crying in the streets? What will happen when they've disappeared again from the media's radar screen, as they've already started to do, and when the news class has moved on to another Topic A? In the last week, we've gotten very good at holding politicians' feet to the fire. If the poor vanish again, maybe our own feet will deserve a toasting.
3. Write It Well. True, an awful lot of bad prose has floated out of the Gulf Coast in recent days. But for all the stupid gumbo metaphors and "Big Easy" hackery, there's also been a lot of clean, clear, cliche-free writing. Though I'd seen a lot of TV coverage, I didn't have a vivid sense of what it was like to be in New Orleans this week until I came across a restrained little word-picture in a story that ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times: "Soldiers, looters, and scavengers sloshed through murky water under picturesque 18th-century flats with trademark iron-gated balconies. The century-old jazz haunts of Storyville and Basin Street, where Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet played for tips, were silent as graves. The old port blockaded by Union ironclads during the Civil War remains useless, its entry canals bottled up by loose barges, scrap metal, silt, and flood debris."
4. Cry a Little. Modern journalists are often accused of being jaded, cynical beasts, and we generally are. But occasionally the hardened media turns to goo. It happened right after 9/11 and now again, as the nation gets a dose of unusually emotional storytelling, some of it very sad and some uplifting. With thousands of people dead, tearjerkers are naturally the order of the day, and being nonfictional tearjerkers, they have a significant advantage over their movie cousins. I never expected to see the day when a wire story with the 1920s-ish headline, "Sad Story of Boy and His Dog Grips Nation," would fly around the country. The name of the dog that lost his boy was Snowball, and the story came not from The Onion or Jon Stewart, but from the Associated Press. Even the most jaded read it.