Information was scarce during those early hours, and the appearance of Mary Landrieu, Louisiana's senior U.S. senator and a New Orleans native, sent the pack into a frenzy. She was drenched and visibly weary, having replaced her business suit with a work shirt some time before. After a few interviews providing not much of substance for a situation that required 24-hour-a-day news coverage, Landrieu slipped inside headquarters to deal with another storm of data and desperation.
Several hours later she emerged and headed directly for a handful of print journalists on the clock for national publications. "This is off the record," she said, her voice shaking. The rest of the conversation came in pieces as other reporters started approaching the impromptu gathering. Every time it happened, Landrieu would grab her chosen few and pull them into further seclusion.
"This thing is serious," she said. "You have no idea yet, but it is. We're going to need a lot of coverage for a very long time. There is a human side to this story, too. It's like nothing we've ever seen before."
Today, Landrieu doesn't mind placing the tale into public record, as it's a practical example of how information is often filtered to the public during times of disaster. It's also fitting for Landrieu, who's pushing two media-friendly bills through Congress.
She is an original co-sponsor of a bill filed last week that would set a federal standard for protecting journalists and their confidential sources. It's called the Free Flow of Information Act and stipulates a confidential source can only be handed over to prevent "imminent and actual harm" to national security or a real person. The proposed act also protects information that might reveal a source, such as phone records. It's a major issue especially for national media outlets, whose membership is being pulled into court on a regular basis, most notably over the leaked name of an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Compelling reporters to testify and reveal where sensitive material came from will restrict the flow of information to the public, says Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, one of the 40 media companies and journalistic organizations backing the proposal. (The Independent Weekly is a member of AAN.) "When the news is bad, it's only natural that public officials try to hide it," Karpel says. "Consequently, confidential sources are often the only means to uncovering the truth. By protecting those sources, this bill helps the American public hold its government accountable."
While 32 states, including Louisiana, have so-called shield laws on the books protecting reporters in various fashions, there is no uniform standard in federal courts. Landrieu says reporters' freedoms must be protected unilaterally. "Open government is a tenant of our democracy," she says. "The revelation that the Bush Administration turned away nearly $1 billion in foreign aid after Hurricane Katrina came to light as the result of the [Freedom of Information Act] process and demonstrates its essential function as a public check on government power and policy."
Landrieu's other media bill, which she is solely responsible for drafting, was released earlier this year and could ultimately clear some of the hurdles the broadcast media and others face when covering a natural disaster. For starters, the First Response Broadcasters Act states that the local agency in charge of media credentials will remain in charge even after a disaster strikes and the Federal Emergency Management Agency shows up, thus saving journalists from applying twice for the same identification.
But the legislation reaches much farther than that. It also opens up access for local broadcasters to federal gas, food and water supplies during a natural disaster. In the aftermath of Katrina, Landrieu says local broadcasters on the ground lost out on fuel and other supplies procured by out-of-state media outlets. She is also pushing a grant program to help broadcasters protect and upgrade their facilities. "With phone lines down, cell phones out and streets flooded, the sound of local radio and television stations was what many people relied on," she says. "It was an important voice in those dark days and nights following the storm and flooding, and that voice continued on for months."
Landrieu says the legislation will also impact north Louisiana, where tornadoes and floods can devastate communities. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, however, has expressed displeasure over the lack of attention given to print journalists, while Landrieu's camp argues that emergencies demand immediacy, which means electronics. The National Association of Broadcasters, along with the Radio-Television News Directors Association, has endorsed the bill. "The ability of radio and television stations and their online components to broadcast with minimal interruptions before, during and after a disaster is an absolute necessity, and we think this legislation will addresses many of their needs," says RTNDA President Barbara Cochran.
Public approval ' the gold standard in politics ' has traditionally been low for members of the media, especially when it comes to matters of trust and skepticism. So, why would Landrieu, who is facing re-election next year, stick her neck out for the other branch of government? Is she hoping for positive coverage? "No, that is not the reason," says Stephanie Allen, Landrieu's press secretary. "I know Sen. Landrieu well, and she is under no illusion that co-sponsoring these bills will prompt the press to cover her more favorably. Actually, sometimes just the opposite is true."
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Thursday, April 17, 2014:
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.
Now that lawmakers have shot down efforts to cap annual interest rates for payday loans, supporters for stricter regulations of the storefront lenders are rallying behind another strategy.
The Appropriations Committee held public testimony day, letting people talk about what they like or don't like about Gov. Bobby Jindal's budget recommendations for the 2014-15 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lafayette police are investigating the death of a 21-year-old woman whose body was found early Sunday in a drainage ditch in Girard Park.
Former Grant parish District Attorney Ed Tarpley says he's running for the U.S. House seat currently held by Republican Vance McAllister of Swartz.
Louisiana-Lafayette got strong starting pitching and timely hitting to hold off Arkansas-Little Rock 6-3 in Sun Belt Conference baseball in Lafayette, La.
Chris Williams knows how to pilfer from the public coffers, this time with a back-pay lawsuit filed three years ago against the Lafayette Housing Authority, which netted the former city-parish councilman a cool five figures.
McAllister's office vowed that he intended to stay in office — for now. As for questions about whether he would stand for re-election in November, those were dodged.
The Green Army's Lafayette brigade has announced it will pay a visit Friday morning to Sen. Page Cortez to urge him to vote against Sen. Robert Adley's SB 553, which the group is calling the "Big Oil Bailout Bill of 2014."