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Even Amid Obstacles, News Coverage of Hurricane Sandy is Pretty Solid


Even Amid Obstacles, News Coverage of Hurricane Sandy is Pretty Solid

ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - Resident Kim Johnson inspects the area around her apartment building, which flooded and destroyed large sections of an old boardwalk, on October 30, 2012.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Big events can bring out the best - and sometimes the worst - in the reporters chronicling them, but as I write this, two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, I'd say coverage of the "Frankenstorm" has been reassuringly solid, even in the face of enormous difficulties.

Last week I'd chastised ABC News for its over-the-top coverage leading up to Sandy, but what once seemed extreme now seems appropriate to the scale of a storm that has taken on historic proportions.

What stood out? "World News" weekend anchor David Muir's reporting on the heroic evacuation of New York University Langone Medical Center, where nurses administered oxygen to newborns as they were led to a line of waiting ambulances after the hospital's generators failed. Muir, at least in his segment for "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, seemed to be on the verge of tears as he surveyed the phalanx of ambulances waiting to ferry patients to other hospitals. But he kept his composure and did clear-eyed reporting on what was indeed a poignant story.

At the same network, "20/20″ co-anchor Chris Cuomo was reporter-as-morale-booster, chronicling the work MTA staffers who will be laboring long and hard in the days to come to repair the city's flooded subway system. It was a story worth telling, but Cuomo's repeated emphasis on the toughness of New Yorkers was unnecessary; after the 9/11 attacks, it goes without saying that the Big Apple's residents are a gritty and determined lot, no cheerleading required.

Over at CNN Anderson Cooper seemed lost in the dark - literally - as he reported from a murky and windswept Asbury Park, N.J., but I challenge anyone to name a harder-working reporter in TV news. When catastrophe looms, Cooper is there, carrying the mantle of no less than Edward R. Murrow on his shoulders. We're lucky to have him out there in the gloom, bearing witness to tragedy.

CNN also had its share of miscues. Meteorologist Chad Myers, appearing on Piers Morgan's show, reported that the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was awash in 3 feet of water. It wasn't true. The source of this misinformation was a rogue twitterer who was quickly outed by Buzzfeed. Turns out this liar was also a hedge fund analyst and GOP political consultant. Insert your own joke here.

Nearly every news outlet in the region faced logistical problems brought on by the storm. As The New York Times reported, newsrooms were flooded, radio stations were knocked off the air and even websites went dark in the wake of Sandy's wrath. Some storm zones were deemed too dangerous even for TV reporters who built their reputations on doing live shots amid gale force winds and surging waves.

But some of the most compelling TV came from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his press conferences from a nondescript office in Ewing. You may argue with Christie's politics, but there's no question he's a pol with charisma to spare. And his newser late Tuesday, following his helicopter tour of the state's storm-ravaged coastline, was nothing short of moving as he recounted how parts of "the Jersey Shore of my youth" had been washed away forever.

Michael Symons, in his story for the Asbury Park Press, wisely eschews paraphrasing and instead lets the governor speak for himself:

"It was an overwhelming afternoon for me, emotionally, as a kid who was born and raised in this state and spent a lot of time over my life, in both my childhood and my adult life, at the Jersey Shore," Christie said. "We'll rebuild it. No question in my mind, we'll rebuild it. But for those of us who are my age, it won't be the same. It'll be different, because many of the iconic things that made it what it was are now gone and washed into the ocean."

Sandy has, temporarily at least, displaced the looming election as the top news story, but politics haven't disappeared entirely. Christie's effusive praise for President Obama's handling of the storm had the cable news punditocracy theorizing about the governor's motives. Was he currying favor with his blue-state constituents? Positioning himself as a moderate for a presidential run in 2016?

Call me naive, but I choose to see it simply as one man thanking another for offering aid when it was needed most.

The downsized newsrooms of New York's big dailies still managed to produce plenty of cogent copy to chew on, and with paywalls lowered during the storm the stories could be accessed by anyone who still had electricity or a charged smartphone. Veteran New York Daily News rewriteman Corky Siemaszko aptly dubbed Sandy the "she-witch storm" and wrote that she"made landfall at high tide under a full moon -- and instantly turned miles and miles of real estate into oceanfront property."

Over at the Times, Marc Santora did a clever sidebar on the darkness that settled over lower Manhattan after power was lost, writing: "Never before has the divide between uptown and downtown in Manhattan been starker. Or darker."

The best lede I've seen so far came from the Times' N. R. Kleinfeld and Michael Powell, who wrote of the cruel twists of fate that led to some being killed as they sat in what they thought was the safety of their homes. I won't give it away here; click the link and read it for yourself.

And at The New Yorker, editor David Remnick, in his own account of the NYU Langone evacuation, demonstrated yet again that lucid writing comes from painstaking and careful reporting:

"By late Monday, the conditions were frightening. The lights were out. There was no water. The toilets didn't flush. There were power failures in the emergency room and the transplant unit. Medical personnel had to bring more than two hundred patients down the stairs and get them to other hospitals all over the city and beyond..."

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, especially in a hurricane. But Remnick's prose reminds us of the power of a succinct, well-written paragraph.

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