August 23rd, 2015
04:31 PM ET

Fmr CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve on a lesson for journalists to take from Hurricane Katrina: "You can only see what you see. There may be a very different situation over the hill or down the road. Go and seek it out."

Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Jeanne Meserve, former CNN national security correspondent, joined host Brian Stelter. She described how she finally got national attention to the plight of Hurricane Katrina survivors and her historic reporting that she refers to as her “Paul Revere moment”.

Reliable Sources airs Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon (ET).

Full video, text highlights, and a full transcript from the show are available below.

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s RELIABLE SOURCES”

VIDEO:

Katrina ten years later: a 'Paul Revere moment'

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS:

Former CNN national security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve, on her historic “Paul Revere moment”: …I call it my Paul Revere moment.  I really was very aware of the fact that we were the only people broadcasting from that part of the city, that we had the story, the real story. And it was on my mind.  Particularly, the people at the Department of Homeland Security knew me, they knew my reporting, they knew I didn't hype.  They must be listening.  They're going to understand.  But they went home that night not understanding.

Meserve describes how she finally got national attention to the urgent plight of Hurricane Katrina survivors: “[STELTER]:  A couple other times, you - I think you called into Larry King's show.  The phone didn't work. And, finally, it's 11:30 when you finally reach Aaron Brown. [MESERVE]:  That's right.  We had pulled our satellite truck out of the city because they were afraid we'd lose it, that the flooding might be catastrophic.  We were working with something called a BGAN which would put us up on the satellite.  That was late to get to us, and then we lost light.  So telephone was the only way that we could do it – I had started probably around 6:00 in the evening telling people by phone what I was seeing on the air.  And people couldn't hear it.  One of the heroes of that night, to me, is Aaron Brown, who actually listened to what I was saying and played it out and asked me questions. [STELTER]:  Which is one of the most important skills in television …actually listening to the guest – trying to get people's attention…  [STELTER]:  Once you started to relay this, once you started to break down, started to weep in this 10-minute-long report, did you find yourself thinking, this is unprofessional to be tearing up?  To me, it was the most – human thing you could be doing at the time.  [MESERVE]:  Yes.  I am prone to tearing up.  I have done it at other instances in my career.  When I finished this phone conversation with Aaron – I talked to myself and was very disappointed that I had been so emotional.  But – because we didn't have the pictures, it may have been that emotion that put across the gravity of the situation we were dealing with.

Meserve on why national security authorities, and some of the public, did not seem to understand the life-threatening crisis that followed the storm: “…the fact that we didn't have pictures made it a very different kind of story.  I think people would have heard it if they could have seen it.  And they couldn't see it.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: We are approaching the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was a savage, awful storm, but a shining moment for journalists who alerted the country to the disaster that was unfolding.  And right now, I want to take you back to one of those moments in particular, and one journalist's story that personally I know I'm never going to forget.

Katrina made landfall in the morning August 29, 2005.  And throughout that first day, August 29, it was widely reported that New Orleans had been spared the worst, widely and prematurely.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2005)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS:  That last-minute tug to the right was all it took to spare this city from the very worst.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  At this hour, it appears as if New Orleans has been spared cataclysmic damage.  Most levees protecting this historic city appear to have held.

JEFFREY KOFMAN, ABC NEWS:  No question Hurricane Katrina has given New Orleans a terrible thrashing.  But, that said, this was not the apocalyptic hurricane that so many had feared.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER:  I went to bed that night thinking, like many, that New Orleans had gotten lucky, that it had been spared the worst.  But there was a very different story being told by reporters who were outside of the French Quarter.  They were in neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward.  Here is the part I will never forget.  I heard it the next morning.  I have listened to it many times since.  I think it's one of the single best examples of journalism I have ever seen on television.  It's a report, by phone, by CNN correspondent Jeanne Meserve.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2005)

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT:  As I left tonight, darkness, of course, had fallen.

And you can hear people yelling for help.  You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.

But, for tonight, they've had to suspend the rescue efforts.

We watched one woman whose leg had been severed.  Mark Biello, one of our cameramen, went out in one of the boats to help shoot.  He ended up being out for hours and told horrific tales.  He saw bodies.  He saw where - he saw other just unfathomable things.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR:  You know, people sometimes think that we're a bunch of kind of wacky thrill-seekers doing this work sometimes.  And no one who has listened to the words you've spoken or the tone of your voice could possibly think that now.

MESERVE:  We are sometimes wacky thrill-seekers.  But when you stand in the dark, and you hear people yelling for help, and no one can get to them, it's a totally different experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER:  She wept.  She whispered, which made it all the more frightening, all the more disturbing. And after Aaron Brown returned from commercial break, you could see in that very moment how the coverage of Katrina had shifted.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2005)

BROWN:  I was going to say the worst of Katrina is over.  I'm not sure, in fact, that we can say that. What we can say is the worst of the weather is over.

But what remains, we are just beginning now, I think, to understand.  And that may be far worse than our imaginations to this point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER:  And Jeanne Meserve joins me now here in New York to talk more about that day. Now a former CNN correspondent, she is the director of training at the Communications Center in D.C. Jeanne, to me, this is one of the best illustrations of a journalist as a true first-responder.  You were trying to alert the country and the officials in Washington about what you were seeing.

MESERVE:  Yes, I call it my Paul Revere moment.  I really was very aware of the fact that we were the only people broadcasting from that part of the city, that we had the story, the real story. And it was on my mind.  Particularly, the people at the Department of Homeland Security knew me, they knew my reporting, they knew I didn't hype.  They must be listening.  They're going to understand.  But they went home that night not understanding.

STELTER:  It's because you didn't sensationalize, it's because you were in hushed tones, you were almost whispering at points, that I think it was even more attention-grabbing. You weren't trying to overstate.  If anything, you were understating what you were seeing there.

MESERVE:  However, the fact that we didn't have pictures made it a very different kind of story.  I think people would have heard it if they could have seen it.  And they couldn't see it.

STELTER:  Yes, let's talk about that day and why they couldn't see it.  So, it was in the afternoon.  You were at the Superdome.  And people started arriving, survivors who were soaking wet.  And that's why you ended up driving out to the interstate to find this part of the city?

MESERVE:  Yes.  In all honesty, it was one of our producers who was at the Superdome who said, "Hey, something is going on here." And we went down there, linked up with a city council member who took us out to where the flooding was.

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER:  And then you're seeing it that evening.  You're hearing people out there.  You tried to get onto television.  And a couple times, you did get onto television.  And the anchors in some cases didn't recognize the gravity of it.

MESERVE:  They didn't get it.  They didn't get it.

STELTER:  A couple other times, you - I think you called into Larry King's show.  The phone didn't work. And, finally, it's 11:30 when you finally reach Aaron Brown.

MESERVE:  That's right.  We had pulled our satellite truck out of the city because they were afraid we'd lose it, that the flooding might be catastrophic.  We were working with something called a BGAN which would put us up on the satellite.  That was late to get to us, and then we lost light.  So telephone was the only way that we could do it.  But, yes, I had started probably around 6:00 in the evening telling people by phone what I was seeing on the air.  And people couldn't hear it.  They just couldn't hear it.

One of the heroes of that night, to me, is Aaron Brown, who actually listened to what I was saying and played it out and asked me questions.

STELTER:  Which is one of the most important skills in television...

MESERVE:  It is.

STELTER: ... actually listening to the guest, in that case you, trying to get people's attention.

MESERVE:  It is. But, listen, I have been in the anchor chair myself.  I know how tough it is in a breaking news situation, when you have lots of inputs.  You're thinking one, two, three steps ahead.  But it is true that nobody was really paying attention to what I said.

STELTER:  Once you started to relay this, once you started to break down, started to weep in this 10-minute-long report, did you find yourself thinking, this is unprofessional to be tearing up?  To me, it was the most - most human thing you could be doing at the time.

MESERVE:  Yes.  Yes.  I am prone to tearing up.  I have done it at other instances in my career.  When I finished this phone conversation with Aaron, I - I talked to myself and was very disappointed that I had been so emotional.  But, as you say, because we didn't have the pictures, it may have been that emotion that put across the gravity of the situation we were dealing with.

STELTER:  And, in that moment, the story shifts, because we realize it's only just beginning, right?  It's just starting to become the worst.

MESERVE:  Yes.

STELTER:  The water wasn't just there.  It was rising.  You were seeing it actually rise at the time, right?

MESERVE:  Yes.  At that particular location where we were, it was already up to the eaves of the buildings.  But when we drove back to downtown, we could see that it had come up in the hours since we had left.

STELTER:  And one of the lessons for journalists now taking away from this is, go where others aren't.

MESERVE:  Yes.

STELTER:  Go where all the other reporters aren't.

MESERVE:  Yes.  You can only see what you see. There may be a very different situation over the hill or down the road.  Go and seek it out.

STELTER:  Jeanne, thanks for being here and recounting it with us.

MESERVE:  My pleasure.

STELTER:  I appreciate it.

MESERVE:  Thanks, Brian.

STELTER:  We have a special report here on CNN with Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night, "Katrina: The Storm That Never Stopped," premiering Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. here on CNN.

###END INTERVIEW###

 


Topics: Brian Stelter • CNN • Reliable Sources
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