TERRY GROSS, host:
This week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrinas landfall. TV critic David Bianculli says that television was all over the story then and is all over it again now.
DAVID BIANCULLI: Whatever approach you'd like to see in a fifth anniversary update of Hurricane Katrina's impact on the Gulf region, TV provides it this week. A pure look back, with retrospective clips and reflection? Check. Fresh reporting, digging up new angles and important stories? Check. A detailed update, focusing not only on what happened then, but what has happened since? Check. All you have to do is know where you go, so here's a road map.
Tonight at 9:00 Eastern Time on the National Geographic Channel, a two-hour special called Witness: Katrina covers the August 2005 disaster from ground level. It collects images and recordings not from TV reporters on assignment, but from Gulf residents in their homes holding camcorders, or making phone calls, as the massive storm surge comes closer and closer.
Here are two such samples. First, from a woman filming as her house becomes a virtual island, then from another woman apologetically calling 911 for help a little too late. In both instances, whats so haunting is the calmness.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of National Geographic Channels Witness: Katrina)
Unidentified Woman #1: We are totally flooded. This is the bedroom. The bed is floating away, all the pillows, the cedar chest, everything floating away.
(Soundbite of water)
Unidentified Woman #1: I'm gonna walk over here to the window. I can't go outside anymore to take video, but if you can see out there, it is like we are in the middle of a river. We are totally surrounded by water. Weve lost everything.
(Soundbite of motorboat)
Unidentified Woman #2: 911, whats your emergency?
IDA: Hey, baby. We were stupid. We're down on the beach. I'm in a solid house. We're on the third floor. We're not sure what we should do. If we should try to swim...
Unidentified Woman #2: The only thing I could tell you to do is pretty much do what you got to do because we can't get nobody to you right now.
Unidentified Woman #2: And well get somebody out there as soon as we can.
IDA: All right. Well, if worse comes to worse, my name Ida.
Unidentified Woman #2: Mm-hmm.
IDA: And tell my family I love them.
BIANCULLI: On the other end of the spectrum, there's the raw emotion in this Wednesday's edition of the PBS series Frontline. Called Law and Disorder, it devotes itself to one specific incident amid all that chaos: the shooting of a young man and the severe beating endured by the man's brother when he went in search of medical help. Both the shooting and the beating, this investigative report concludes, were done by New Orleans police. At the end of the program, the surviving brother bursts into tears when discussing the cop who beat him. But he's crying not from rage, but from compassion.
(Soundbite of PBS series, Law and Disorder)
Unidentified Man: I forgive that police officer. I forgive him with all my heart, because if I dont, God aint going to forgiven me when I do something wrong. I forgive him. I forgive him. And I'm trying to deal with this every day.
(Soundbite of crying)
Unidentified Man: Its hard, man. Feel like something just its gone, that I had in my heart is gone. I aint going to get it. I cant see him no more. Can't do the things we normally do. You know, I miss my brother.
(Soundbite of crying)
Unidentified Man: I miss him.
BIANCULLI: Then, for recaps and reflections of the TV coverage itself, there was NBC's Dateline special, which ran last night. Brian Williams, whose reports from New Orleans were some of the most impressive, discussed his memories of covering the flooded city streets quite candidly, in a session taped shortly after the disaster itself.
(Soundbite of NBCs, Dateline)
Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Journalist, NBC News): We made a decision the French Quarter was no longer safe. Things were getting too dicey and we pulled out to the suburb of Metairie, Louisiana.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: And good evening from Metairie, Louisiana.
I'll be candid: We heard CNN pulled out. That had some influence on our decision. We had no weapons. We don't work that way. That has to separate us as journalists. But it wasn't safe. So here we are driving through town in our rental car state troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street, just to tell them, don't think of doing a smash and grab and killing this guy for the car.
BIANCULLI: Five years later, that really brings you back. Nothing does it quite so much, though, as the footage itself of the flooding, the people on rooftops holding signs for help, the bloated dead bodies floating in canals, and even streets. The outrage that it happened here, in the United States, remains fresh.
And in Spike Lee's new HBO documentary on the disaster and its aftermath, a follow-up to his earlier special, he includes several pieces of TV news that still sting. One is the infamous - doing a heck of a job, Brownie, remark by then-President George Bush. The other is CNN reporter Soledad O'Brien's interview with that very Brownie Michael Brown, then the head of the FEMA government response agency whose response to O'Brien, five days after tragedy struck, leaves her incredulous.
Ms. SOLEDAD OBRIEN (Journalist, CNN): FEMA's been on the ground for four days, going into the fifth day. Why no massive air drop of food and water? In Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, they got a food drop two days after the tsunami struck.
Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former FEMA director): We're feeding those people in the convention center. We have fed over 150,000 people as of last night. That is happening. I think what youre witnessing is that...
Ms. OBRIEN: But I guess the point is, as of last of last night. Sir, forgive me.
Mr. BROWN: Soledad. Soledad.
Ms. OBRIEN: I have to stop you here.
Mr. BROWN: What we're hearing is that we're hearing peoples frustration. There are people that are beginning to manifest themselves out of the community that we didnt know that were there.
Ms. OBRIEN: Why are you discovering this now? It's five days that FEMAs been on the ground. The head of police says it's been five days that FEMAs been there. The mayor, the former mayor, putting out SOS's on Tuesday morning, crying on national television, saying, please send in some troops. So the idea that, yes, I understand that you're feeding people and trying to get in there now, but it's Friday. It's Friday.
Mr. BROWN: Well, the people want to believe...
BIANCULLI: But it's not all bad news and rehash. That same Spike Lee documentary, which is called If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise and airs tonight and tomorrow night at 9:00 Eastern on HBO, covers new ground. Too much, actually squeezing in both this year's Super Bowl win by the New Orleans Saints and the BP mega-oil spill.
But it also looks for signs of hope in the rebuilding of New Orleans and vicinity and finds them, among other places, in the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, where actor Brad Pitt and his business partner, both heard here, have arranged for the design and construction of hundreds of new homes for low-income residents.
(Soundbite of Spike Lee documentary, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise)
Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor, film producer): What you see here now is just under 50 houses either lived in or under construction, and - but its more than that. We rejected the idea that affordable housing has to, you know, use crap materials, toxic materials and appliances that run up a familys utilities bills.
Unidentified Man #2: As you can see here, weve put solar panels on all the houses and these panels, on a day like today, provide enough electricity to run the entire house. So this house is feeding electricity back to the grid, which makes the electricity bills next to nothing.
Mr. PITT: They are safe, because we dont know - we dont know about this wall here. We know its safer. But we got to make sure that these homes are going to be here if something like that were to happen again.
BIANCULLI: The point of all these TV specials is clear - we shouldn't forget what happened five years ago. And TV, more than any other medium, brings it back the most vividly the way we first experienced it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and he teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
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