Exclusive: An interview with Norah O’Donnell, the only anchor to tour the Bahamas after Dorian

September 5, 2019
Category: Newsletters

Good Thursday to you. Hurricane Dorian hovers just off the East Coast, having left behind a disaster in the Bahamas. That’s where we start today as we catch up with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell.

Exclusive: O’Donnell’s Bahamas experience

Just as Hurricane Dorian was leaving the Bahamas, “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell was heading there. While all the major network evening news broadcasts had reporters in the Bahamas, O’Donnell was the only anchor to go there.

“It was the most powerful hurricane on record ever to hit the island,” O’Donnell told me in an email Wednesday night after spending the day on the ground in the Bahamas. “We knew this would be an impending humanitarian crisis. Our job is to provide original reporting from the field.”

O’Donnell flew with the U.S. Coast Guard over the islands hit hardest by the Category 5 hurricane before landing and seeing its effects first-hand. I asked her to describe what she saw.

“Total devastation in many parts of Abaco and Grand Bahama,” O’Donnell said. “One rescued man told us that he’s lived in Abaco for more than 50 years. This is the first hurricane to destroy his home. It’s terribly heartbreaking. We’ve heard three-fourths of the homes are destroyed in some areas.”

After spending the day in the Bahamas, O’Donnell returned to anchor the evening news from Opa Locka, Florida — the staging point for a massive search and rescue operation. But her hurricane coverage is not over.

“Our CBS meteorologists tell us Hurricane Dorian is headed straight for the Carolinas,” O’Donnell told me. “And so we are headed there, too.”

How the media can (really) help with Dorian


George Bolter, left, and his parents walk through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in Freeport, Bahamas. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

How exactly should the media responsibly cover Hurricane Dorian? I posed that question to Al Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty for broadcasting. For starters, he said, let’s not forget that the storm is not over. It left the Bahamas, but now is impacting the United States.

Once the storm goes away, the media cannot.

“Don’t get tired of this story,” Tompkins warned. “Don’t take your eyes off of it. Help follows coverage and many people will need help.”

Right now, the story is fresh. We see the overhead shots that show us the scale of the devastation. We see the shots from the ground that make the stories personal. This is the easy part for reporters.

The challenge will be in the coming weeks and months when other stories push Hurricane Dorian off the newscasts and out of the newspapers. But those impacted by the hurricane will still be suffering.

That’s where the media comes in with coverage that should answer this question for its audience: How can I help?

“This is going to be a long recovery for many people, and that recovery will be helped by coverage,” Tompkins said.

Lester Holt goes behind bars for ‘Justice’


Lester Holt, anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and host of “Dateline NBC,” at his news desk in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

While O’Donnell went to the Bahamas for Wednesday evening’s news broadcast, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt went to prison. Holt recently spent three days embedded inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the country’s largest maximum security prison — also known as Angola, named after the former plantation where the prison now sits.

It is all part of Holt’s “Justice For All” project. His time at Angola was featured on Wednesday’s “Nightly News.”  A one-hour special is scheduled to air Friday on “Dateline.” On Sunday, MSNBC will air a town hall from Sing Sing maximum security prison in New York. Holt will moderate that.

Holt told Variety’s Brian Steinberg, “I have been in many prisons in my reporting. One of the things I have experienced is that you are forced to see these inmates as people. You meet them and talk to them, and certainly, they are people who have made some really horrible choices in life in some cases. But nonetheless, it is important for us to hear from them.”

The climate change in journalism

Among the biggest news topics of 2019? Immigration. Guns. Presidential politics. And, more and more, climate. Of all the news topics out there, climate is starting to get tackled more often by the media even though it can be a complex and unwieldy subject. Still, the media is trying. The latest example was Wednesday night’s seven-hour CNN town hall on climate featuring the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

As Politico’s Michael Calderone notes, MSNBC is sponsoring a two-day forum Sept. 19-20 and more than 220 news outlets are expected to provide a week of climate coverage leading up to the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes told Calderone, “I’ve never seen the level of interest be this high.”

Calderone writes, “While many climate-change activists and experts are pleased with the special commitment of time and energy, they are also skeptical about whether the leading outlets will keep the pressure on political leaders throughout the election and amid coverage of events like Hurricane Dorian.”

Unionizing gets heated at Arizona Republic

The Arizona Republic, a Gannett newspaper, will attempt to unionize ahead of Gannett’s acquisition by GateHouse Media, which is expected before the end of the year. The deal is worth $1.4 billion and there’s a fear among Gannett and Gatehouse employees across the country that the merger could lead to layoffs.

But unionizing is not a sure thing at the Arizona Republic. Newsroom staff and other employees announced Wednesday that they had signed union authorization cards, but The Washington Post reported that Greg Burton, the Republic’s executive editor and west regional editor for Gannett, warned staff about unionizing.

In an email to staff, Burton wrote, “We have been told that one union supporter threatened that things will get ‘even messier’ in the weeks to come. If organized surveillance and spying are already occurring in the face of a divisive unionizing effort, I hope you carefully consider the consequences of bringing the Guild into our workplace.”

The Phoenix New Times reported that two Republic staffers alleged they were subjects of surveillance by pro-union supporters. One of the staffers, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, tweeted:

“When those advocating I join their unionization effort wanted to talk to me, I met with them. After I said I had misgivings about it, they started monitoring and logging my movements — as well as my facial expressions during meetings. That is surveillance and it is wrong.”

On the other hand, Rebekah L. Sanders, a reporter for the Arizona Republic, posted on Facebook and Twitter that she was interrogated by a Gannett HR representative about her unionizing activity. She said the rep demanded her cell phone.

Sanders wrote, “When a company is willing to interrogate employees for exercising their legal rights, when a company is willing to take away the tools employees use to do their jobs, when a company is willing to do anything to intimidate its own employees, it means executives are scared of the power their employees possess and the better working conditions the company will have to provide when colleagues unite and work together.”

Gannett declined comment to The Post about the Arizona Republic unionizing.

Judge: Give the Playboy reporter his pass


Radio host Sebastian Gorka, right, speaks with Playboy’s Brian Karem, left, in July. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Brian Karem was back at work Wednesday. The White House correspondent for Playboy had his White House press credentials restored by a federal judge Tuesday night. U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote, “Karem has shown that even the temporary suspension of his pass inflicts irreparable harm on his First Amendment rights.”

Karem had his pass suspended for 30 days earlier this month after he got into a verbal altercation in the Rose Garden with Sebastian Gorka, a former White House aide and conservative media personality.

After his pass was restored in court Tuesday, Karem told CNN, “It’s good for me, but it’s great for the free press. Today was about all of us.”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham put out a statement disagreeing with the decision, and was criticized for misspelling a word (writing “reign” instead of “rein) in that statement.

She wrote, “We disagree with the decision of the district court to issue an injunction that essentially gives free reign (sic) to members of the press to engage in unprofessional, disruptive conduct at the White House.”

When one door closes, another opens …

Earlier this month, I wrote about Ellis Williams. He is a 25-year-old sportswriter who had accepted a job offer at The Oklahoman, but was laid off before he even started. Gatehouse, which owns The Oklahoman, announced less than a week later that four others in The Oklahoman newsroom had been laid off.

But Williams’ story turned out well. He announced on Twitter on Wednesday that he had been hired to cover the Cleveland Browns for Cleveland.com.

… while other doors are just left ajar


NBC hockey announcer Pierre McGuire. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson, FIie)

The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello reported on Twitter on Wednesday that NBC was removing Pierre McGuire from its top hockey announcing team and replacing him with Brian Boucher. Yet in a statement to Poynter, an NBC spokesperson was vague on whether or not McGuire was actually being removed from the top team.

“Identical to last year, we will begin the season with Doc, Eddie and Brian working the early ‘Wednesday Night Hockey’ game, with Pierre anchoring the late game of the doubleheader,” said the statement, referring to NBC hockey announcers Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Boucher.

If McGuire is off the top team, this is a big disappointment. McGuire’s knowledge and enthusiasm are tops among all hockey announcers. He’s the best part of NBC’s hockey coverage after sports Emmy play-by-play announcer Emrick. McGuire set the gold standard of analyzing between the benches. Carpiniello reported that McGuire will continue to call games for NBC — just not on the top announcing team.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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