December 13, 2021

Early Saturday morning, CNN anchor Pamela Brown checked her phone and saw reports of massive fatalities and damage from overnight tornadoes. She called the managing editor for the evening weekend program she anchors and said four words.

“I’m ready to go.”

“He knew exactly what I was talking about,” she said. She made a similar call that morning to her father. Both people on the other end of the calls knew Brown would anchor the weekend prime-time edition of “CNN Newsroom” from storm-torn Mayfield, Kentucky, not the typical Washington, D.C., studio.

“I felt it was really important to be here,” she told me. “I feel a kinship with my fellow Kentuckians.”

Even though Brown woke up in Washington, D.C., she hopped on a flight to Nashville, found a rental car and made the two-hour drive through the tornado-scarred Kentucky countryside where the governor said 100 people may have died.

The day before, the normally 60-degree December day boiled to more than 80 degrees and then a disturbed rush of cold air pushed in and an atmospheric hellstorm broke loose. Kentucky is no stranger to tornadoes, but never in the more than century-old history of weather records had it seen anything approaching this loss of life in a storm.

Brown comes by her affection for Kentucky naturally. Her father is John Y. Brown, Kentucky’s governor from 1979 to 1983. She was born in his final year in office.

“When I told him I was coming here, my father told me Mayfield is such a special and proud community. He said this would be an important experience to be a spokesperson for an historical moment,” Brown said.

“The people in this community are salt-of-the-earth, hard-working people and I wanted to be on the ground telling this story first-hand,” she said. “When you are here, you feel the story. You breathe it and sense it. Some of these people cleaning up the debris have been at it for 48 hours. I talked with a man who rode out the storm praying in his bathtub. These are the people I grew up with in Kentucky.”

I asked if she had noticed, as I had, that not once covering this disaster did I hear a person say anything derogatory about journalists. Nobody shouted “fake news” and people seemed to appreciate that journalists were there to try to tell the world about this disaster and the monumental effort that will be required to rebuild entire towns. It felt a world away from the partisan, gridlocked D.C. world where Brown lives and works most days as CNN’s senior Washington correspondent. Brown previously served as the network’s justice and Supreme Court correspondent covering law enforcement, national security and the U.S. Supreme Court.

CNN correspondent Pamela Brown was born in Kentucky. Her father, John Y. Brown was the Commonwealth’s governor. (Al Tompkins/Poynter)

“Being in the field is where I am the most alive as a journalist,” Brown said.

I asked what she thought would happen when national media moves on to the next big thing and the global spotlight leaves Mayfield and the other Kentucky towns in the shadows. Mexico Beach, Florida, is sometimes called the “forgotten coast” because Hurricane Michael destroyed 80% of the town but the federal government and media moved on to other problems.

“I covered the earthquake in Haiti (for WJLA-TV). And then sometime later I got to go back to see what had and had not been done there. It is important to follow up and stay on it,” she said.

“I will be back. I will 100% be back.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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