By: LINDA DEUTSCH, AP Special Correspondent
(AP) Staff members of the New Orleans newspaper that survived Hurricane Katrina are facing a continuing dilemma — how to report objectively about a story in which they are key players.
“Like our readers, we’re also the ones to whom the events happened, at once narrator and subject,” said Jim Amoss, editor of The Times-Picayune. “The intersection of these two roles has been excruciating.”
In an address Saturday to the American Bar Association’s Communications Lawyers Forum, Amoss described how the devastation strained the newspaper that once predicted in a lengthy series that New Orleans would be destroyed by just such a disaster.
Asked if the paper had adequately prepared the public, Amoss said: “I don’t think any news organization in our area could prepare the reading public for what eventually happened.”
“In the course of a single day, our way of life and sense of order were wiped out,” he said.
Amoss recalled that the newsroom was calm as the powerful storm approached, with nearly all the reporters and editors believing Katrina was headed elsewhere.
The lone worried voice belonged to reporter Mark Schleifstein, who had co-authored the series three years earlier predicting devastation if the city’s levees were breached.
“Over the years, Mark’s colleagues had grown numb to his warnings of the swamped-bowl scenario,” Amoss said, referring to the city’s geography. “But that afternoon his voice and his pallor made me listen.”
Schleifstein told his editor the eye of the hurricane was headed directly toward New Orleans, and that he had been warned by a source at the National Hurricane Center to consider evacuating the newspaper building.
That was the beginning of a weeks-long ordeal that tested the city and the newspaper. At first, Amoss and the staff of 140 slept in sleeping bags and on air mattresses, typing and transmitting stories electronically from a bunker at the building’s core.
Some of the first details of the widespread devastation came when James O’Byrne, features editor, and Doug MacCash, art critic, rode bikes to an area being flooded. O’Byrne paused as they watched from a bridge.
“At this point, James put down his notebook,” Amoss said. “He stood frozen on the bridge for several minutes as it dawned on him that his house was drowning, that there would be no coming home when this was over. Then he shook himself back into reporter mode, grabbed his pad and continued writing.” From then on, reporters and editors were torn by ethical dilemmas centering on how they could tell the story objectively without letting their own plights get in the way, Amoss said.
When the decision finally was made to evacuate the building, the most upsetting aspect was leaving without finishing one of the most important editions in the paper’s history, Amoss said.
“We left with the queasy fear that, for the first time since the Civil War, we might not produce a newspaper for tomorrow,” he said.
Traveling in delivery trucks, they made it to Baton Rouge, La., where Amoss reached a friend, Jack Hamilton, at Louisiana State University’s communications school, who offered classrooms with computers.
Groups of reporters went back to the swamped city to send in details. Some — Schleifstein included — found they were homeless.
Reporters who went to a Wal-Mart to buy food and water found the store being looted.
“Our group stood in the parking lot, debating the right thing to do,” Amoss said. “They had three options, take the items, take them and pay for them later, or put them back.”
One reporter argued that if they took anything without paying, they would have to write about themselves as part of the story.
“His view prevailed,” Amoss said. “The goods went back to the shelves and on they drove, empty-handed.”
For three days, the paper published only electronically on its Web site, www.nola.com. Then, a 16-page paper was produced with help from other newspapers.
“When a group of reporters and editors showed up at the New Orleans Convention Center with a bundle of those first papers, people grabbed for them as if they were food,” Amoss said.
Debates over ethics and personal involvement continue. Amoss has taken criticism for crusading fiercely to rebuild the city and putting an editorial on the front page. He said he believes advocacy on behalf of the community is a duty.
“For us, Katrina is and will be a defining moment of our lives, a story we’ll be telling till the day we die,” he said. “Being a part of the plot is both riveting and deeply unsettling. We don’t yet know the end of this story … It’s the story of our lives, and we must both live and chronicle it.”