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."
OK, so they’re bentgrass, the type used on golf course greens. But grass is grass.
The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, despite opponents who argued it would shut down the storefront lenders.
A measure to allow the state to implement its own, less stringent plan for limiting carbon dioxide emissions unanimously passed the Senate.
FDA to regulate e-cigarettes, Jodie Foster gets married, Vermont to require labels on genetically-modified food, and more news for today, April 24, 2014.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
A push to expand Louisiana's Medicaid program as allowed under the federal health care has been overwhelmingly rejected by the Senate health committee.
Louisiana welfare recipients would be prohibited in state law from spending the federal assistance at lingerie shops, tattoo parlors, nail salons and jewelry stores, under a bill that received the support Wednesday of a House committee.
Senators will consider whether to prohibit private businesses in Louisiana from paying unequal wages to employees of different genders for the same job.
Rep. Joel Robideaux has delayed bill hearings and said unless a compromise can be reached, he won't bring up the legislation this session.
Once again, Lafayette Parish School Board President Hunter Beasley is focused on an issue that has nothing to do with the educational well-being of our public school children.
After exhausting his appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, the owner of the Tiger Truck Stop in Grosse Tete has no legal remedy left save one: do an end run around the high court via a bill that would grandfather his “right” to keep a 550-pound tiger enclosed in a pin at his roadside business.
Louisiana poet Darrell Bourque has won the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award, given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life.
Drivers would have to secure dogs riding in truck beds while on interstate highways, if the Senate agrees to a bill backed by the House.
An effort to prohibit employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity was shelved Tuesday for the legislative session.
Louisiana won't lessen its penalties for marijuana possession, keeping laws on the books that allow people to be jailed up to 20 years for repeat offenses of having the drug in hand.
“This is one of the oldest divides that exists, and that divide is about the haves and the have-nots.”
It took a few weeks for the pitfalls to emerge in the governor’s $25 billion budget, but the time of judgment has finally arrived.
With pressure continuing to build for him to resign, Congressman Vance McAllister announced plans recently to remain secluded during the Easter break, but the Swartz Republican has said he’ll be back on the Hill casting votes and attending committee meetings when the congressional recess ends April 28.
A bid to limit the use of unmanned aircraft on private property in Louisiana stalled Monday in the Louisiana Senate.
A Shreveport lawmaker said Monday he's scrapping his proposal to name the Bible as Louisiana's official state book.
Attorney hopes fellow lawyers will join him in urging the D.A. to step aside and allow a competent, ethical challenger to take over the scandal-ridden office.
An official with the Louisiana Department of Education was arrested on a range of charges Friday after allegedly breaking into a home and brandishing a knife.
State Rep. Stuart Bishop says he’s concerned with the quality of Capitol Lake, but when it comes to Louisiana’s coastline, this Lafayette Republican doesn't seem to give a damn.
Democrats sweating this year's elections may be hoping that the Obama administration's latest delay to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline takes a politically fraught issue off the table for the midterms.
Louisiana lawmakers are entering the second half of their three-month regular legislative session, which must end by June 2. Where some of the major issues stand: