Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restrictions irk media members covering storm

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When NBC anchor Brian Williams and his crew were trying to take pictures of a National Guard unit securing a Brooks Brothers shop in downtown New Orleans, a sergeant blocked the footage by ordering them to the other side of Canal Street.

"I have searched my mind for some justification for why I can't be reporting in a calm and heavily defended American city and cannot find one," Williams said yesterday. "I don't like being told when I can and cannot walk on the streets and take pictures."

But he grumbled and told his crew to stop shooting Wednesday, Williams said, because "authority in New Orleans is as good as the last person to make the rule. I didn't have time to take it up the chain."

As rescue and recovery efforts continue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reporters and press analysts are growing increasingly critical of restrictions on media access. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), under heavy journalistic fire for its slow response to the disaster, has sparked new criticism by asking news organizations not to take pictures of bodies being recovered in Louisiana and Mississippi.

FEMA spokesman Mark Pfeifle said yesterday that the agency "has asked that those images not be shown," but that this is only a request. "Our main desire is to avoid unfortunate situations where a family member waiting for news of a loved one would find out about their passing from a newspaper or watching television," he said.

Some Louisiana officials, whether taking their cue from FEMA or not, are attempting to make the policy mandatory. Washington Post reporter Timothy Dwyer said he heard a sergeant from a state agency telling a camera crew allowed on a boat in a flooded area near downtown New Orleans: "If we catch you photographing one body, we're going to bring you back in and throw you off the boat."

The irony, Dwyer said, was that two bodies — one in a black bag, the other covered by a blue quilt — were visible on the off-ramp of Interstate 10 that the boats were using as a staging area.

Television networks have continued to show some bodies, as they have since the hurricane struck, but often covered or in body bags, so identification is not an issue.

There have been other moments of tension. At a fire near the French Quarter, Williams noted in a posting on NBC's Web site, a police officer from out of town "raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media ... obvious members of the media ... armed only with notepads." He also noted that the National Guard is barring journalists from the city's convention center and Superdome, the very facilities that evacuees were barred from leaving last week.

"I saw many fingers on triggers," Williams said yesterday, producing such a sense of being in a foreign land that he repeatedly caught himself saying, "When I get back to the States."

Pfeifle said FEMA has barred reporters and photographers from some rescue and patrol boats, but on a case-by-case basis.

State and local authorities have often blocked journalists from entering shelters, although interviews with evacuees often take place outside them. Pfeifle defended the approach on privacy grounds, saying, "This is their home."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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