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, December 12, 2013:
As part of a national undertaking known by industry insiders as the “Butterfly Project,” a rebranded version of The Daily Advertiser is set to launch with Sunday’s edition of the Gannett-owned paper.
Louisiana moved up a slot to 48th in the ranking of healthy states — once again, thank God for Mississippi! — so all this frettin’ about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid per Obamacare ... fuggidaboutit! We don’t need Medicaid no more!
The Denham Springs woman who placed Christmas lights in the shape of a butter finger on her roof in a display of anger directed at neighbors has doubled the trouble for the 2013 holiday season.
The 30-second commercial, to run around the state, is the Democratic senator's first TV spot in her bid for re-election to a fourth term.
It's a number that has edged up but falls far short of the thousands who are eligible for subsidized coverage.
A group of mostly higher education leaders will make recommendations to state lawmakers about how to tweak the policies governing tuition rates charged at the state's public colleges.
That would be Congressman John Fleming talking about Sen. David Vitter.
The alleged mastermind behind the bribery scheme that went on for four years under DA Mike Harson’s nose isn’t just schizophrenic, bipolar and recovering from mini strokes; he now says he has cancer.
Louisiana's higher education leaders are trying to work out a financing deal to keep the state's public colleges from running low on state cash to operate their campuses.
With their latest triumph, the Saints left little doubt about how tough they are to beat in the Superdome. Unfortunately, two of their remaining three games are on the road.
For the first time in at least five years, retired teachers, state workers and school system employees could see an increase in their pension checks.
Lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration shared a collective sigh of relief with the news that Louisiana's tax amnesty program brought in the $200 million that they used to help balance this year's budget.
Drew Brees often makes the extraordinary look routine, particularly during night games in the Superdome.
The teams were extended invitations Sunday for the New Year's Day matchup played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
If all 44 projects are approved, about $300 million would remain in the fund set up as a down payment to help the Gulf.
Last week, the Saints gave up 429 yards to Seattle, second most in a game this season.
Since Anthony Jennings and Brooks Haack were not expected to contribute until next year at the earliest, it seemed like a sneak peek at hidden Christmas gifts.
Louisiana National Guard personnel seeking benefits for same-sex spouses will have an easier time filing the requests, despite a state refusal to let its workers process the paperwork.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera sees one potential flaw with his team's stellar defensive play so far this season. "Apparently we like to bite on the double moves," Rivera said.
Computer hackers may have gained access to the personal information of thousands of Louisiana residents who use debit cards issued by JPMorgan Chase for three state agencies, authorities said Wednesday.
Jim Purcell, who has been in the job since February 2011, notified the Board of Regents about his decision at its monthly meeting.
Hushed plans for a commercial development along the Louisiana Avenue portion of the Holy Rosary campus put the future of longtime tenant EarthShare Gardens in jeopardy.
If a recent advertisement in The Daily Advertiser is any indication, speculation the local daily will be implementing the “Butterfly Project” could be more of a reality than the Gannett-owned paper’s top execs are willing to admit.
Mettenberger injured his left knee while unloading a 32-yard completion in the fourth quarter of No. 14 LSU's 31-27 victory over Arkansas last Friday, and LSU coach Les Miles confirmed the severity of the injury on Wednesday.