Monday, September 26, 2005

Flirting with Rita

This morning, a pair of amiable reporters from NBC Nightly News dropped in to chat about the day ahead. Their bosses in New York had ordered them to stay another day or two, and they were clearly miffed because, for them, stories about rebuilding, recovery and restoration were merely a local news story. As one of them grumbled, Rita had devolved into a "power outage story." No bleeding, no leading in the TV biz.

But he's right about one thing: It's a local story. The havoc that Rita wreaked is of most concern to our local readers, not Manhattanites. The nation probably already knows all they want or need to know about Hurricane Rita and her swath of damage. They can get on to their own lives, perhaps even appreciating their untumbled homes and lives slightly more. People who look to the major national media -- CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Fox News et al -- can expect the immediate developments while the story is fresh, but those outlets have a world to cover. Their attention will soon shift away because, face it, their readers/viewers are overwhelmingly uninterested in the local aftermath. As humans, we simply cannot devote the same attention to events on the other side of the globe that we do to events in our own neighborhood.

As much as I care about the uprooted lives in my community, I cannot expect NBC, CNN, Fox, major American newspapers and wire services -- or even bloggers -- to keep their focus on us. Their tastes, which mirror the public's tastes, are generally for fast-food, quick-hit news ... the high points in a news-filled world, not stories that will unfold for years. Today, less than three days after Rita struck, the top news stories in most other media include the arrest of Cindy Sheehan and the death of Don "Maxwell Smart" Adams.

In a politico-media world, the attention of the national media might serve to keep the focus of federal authorities. Rightly or wrongly, FEMA has been castigated roundly here for its slow response -- again -- but some national stories clearly dismiss the complaints of local authorities and reassure the rest of the nation that FEMA is on the ball this time.

The long-term task of telling a year-long -- or longer -- story falls to local media. That's what we do. The national media, by its nature, bungee-jumps into a situation and out again. While their work is generally laudable, the dirtier work is left to somebody else.

Some remarkable reporting has been done, particularly by newspapermen and -women on the ground here, many of whom bunked with us during the worst of the storm (by the way, if anyone knows the origins of the term "hunker down," please post!) I've had a chance to scan the major coverage and saw some outstanding work done under the same austere, rigorous conditions we face. The LA Times' Scott Gold had a marvelous piece, "Welcome to Hackberry: Population 0." From my "alma mater" paper, The Denver Post, John Ingold wrote about a twice-battered family in a very well done story.

But they'll all be gone next week, if not sooner. The tough work of reporting the recovery falls to us. And that's fine with me. We know these people, and hold them dearer. Not just as customers and sources, but as neighbors. That means we're better equipped to reflect their triumphs, heartbreaks and frailties.


President Bush arrives tomorrow for a look-see. I bet I know where our national colleagues will be, as they should. But we'll be there, too. Me personally? Nope. I'll be in my own neighborhood for a couple hours, as I was today, checking on friends' houses, hauling branches, sweeping up broken glass, and listening to my neighbors' stories ... taking the first steps forward, toward the way it was.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Franscell --
I was news editor at the Beaumont Enterprise back in 1998, and I still have several friends in the newsroom, including Beth Gallaspy and Pete Churton. I saw your column while trying to learn more about how Beaumont and the Golden Triangle held up during the storm. Please pass along my highest praise and deepest respect for the tremendous work by the Enterprise staff. They did a great job, and I hope everyone is safe.
I thought your observations on the national media interest were dead on. Alas, most folks beyond Texas and Louisiana are already turning their attention to the new season of The Apprentice. While I'm no longer in Texas, my thoughts are with my home state, and I hope everyone gets through this ordeal.
Also, thanks for the kind words about John Ingold's work. I'm regional editor at The Denver Post, and John is on my staff. We're very proud of his efforts.

Good luck to you and the crew at the Enterprise.


Todd Stone

Orion said...

Today as I was flipping around the major news media, I knew that I was going to have to find more local resourcces, which is why today I started searching out links to the Beaumont Newspaper and TV stations websites. I live in Houston, but most of my family lives in the Golden Triangle up to Jasper County. So please keep doing what you are doing, because I'm sure there are many people who have family in the area who won't be able to get news any other way. I found your blog through Eric Berger at the Houston Chronicle.

Bryan said...

Y'all have been doing a great job and you are being read over the 'Net across the nation.

Ask and ye shall receive: hunker down. LBJ used it a lot, as noted in the article.

Melanie said...


You seem to be feeling well enough for your curiosity to have awakened. I celebrate that.

Been reading The Enterprise and Times-Picayune online to learn the facts on the ground.

Avian Flu is 6-8 weeks out, and it is clear the the USG if utterly clueless and helpless for real crises.

Dan_Wallach said...

Ron -- Make sure you guys get some rest. Your Dallas bureau is up and running -- Dan

Marie said...

I would much rather read a story of how a local newspaper kept its act together amidst mayhem than watch the big media jump hoops for Cindy Sheehan anyday.

Katie B. said...

For what it's worth, this Manhattanite has been following the Enterprise religiously for the last week. I've lived in Beaumont since I was four, and my family is still there. My dad is a doctor who weathered out the storm at St. Elizabeth's and your paper is the best way for me to know what he's been going through. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Dear Ron,
Please know that there are many of us across the nation who don't already know all that we want to know, or that we need to know about the devastation in Beaumont and other areas that Rita hit.

Of course, it's true that the havoc on the ground is of primary concern to those whose lives and communities Rita has directly affected. But, please know that we New Yorkers (we who were born and bred in Manhattan call ourselves that - never "Manhattanites".) (Y'all call us "Yankees"!) are very deeply concerned about your plight, and about FEMA's inability and refusal to function - again, and again, and again.

The national news media never covers any story with any thoroughness. That's why so many of us have been reading the really excellent coverage in The Beaumont Enterprise.

Just so you know that your reporting is getting out beyond Beaumont, a story that appeared in Editor & Publisher - out of New York - "Katrina Redux? Beaumont Paper Finds Federal Storm Failure in Texas", was reprinted by for the whole world to read.

Our best to ya'll from New York. Our hearts are with you.


jodi w said...

Thank you so much for having these sites, you are a true angel and a life saver. I understand the media not focusing continualy but it would be nice if i heard a little less about a hurricane from a month ago, and maybe a mention about one from less than a week ago.

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Anonymous said...

Flirting with Rita - great flirting advice!