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."
So far the Democratic agenda includes proposals to expand Medicaid; increase the minimum wage; offer equal pay to women; heighten regulations on predatory lending practices, like payday loans; and add more transparency in the governor’s office.
Hot-button education issues ranging from Common Core to charter schools have some lawmakers pushing to scrap the appointing process and go back to electing the state's super.
Police say the handcuffed man fatally shot himself in the back, but his family isn't buying the story.
Gov. Bobby Jindal offered a budget proposal that suggests new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday, March 11, 2014:
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.