Mary and the Media

by Jeremy Alford

As she readies for a tough re-election campaign, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is pushing two press-friendly bills through Congress.

The parking was extremely limited at the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge. Print reporters and media vans were forced to make their own spots in nearby median strips or grassy fields. Roughly 24 hours had passed since Katrina officially made landfall, and the rain and wind could still be felt further up Interstate 10. To combat the moisture, technology's archenemy, television crews hurriedly made makeshift tents out of tarps while their interns clung to cups of coffee for the on-air personalities.

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."