The Year of Living Dangerously
What a time we are living in. As I write this, three cable news channels have broken away from the New York subway story to show live pictures of the evacuation of the Washington monument due to a threat.
I started my day by lecturing to a class at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism... I did a lot of listening as well. Fantastic students, an appearance which by nature meant reprising much of the story of Katrina... it surprised me how much emotion comes back this many weeks since the event.
As we head into another weekend, and while some of us are hoping the rain will stay away and allow a Yankee victory in the Bronx tonight, we have a full broadcast mapped out for this evening. We'll have the latest on the scare here in New York, and the different take the Feds seem to have on it. We'll have a piece on the Supreme Court, the Bush family history and the effect of a job for life. We'll look at the women appointed to senior positions in the Bush Administration. Also, a subject near to our hearts: Charity Hospital in New Orleans is no more. A sad day for medical care in a city that can ill-afford its loss.
One more thing: as we are currently dealing with a case of breast cancer in my family, a special note of admiration for my colleague and friend Katie Couric... for hatching the concept for her groundbreaking "Today" show segment this morning, and for having the courage to see her idea through. We've seen what happens when Katie takes on a cause. May the fight against breast cancer profit from the attention she has given it.
Let us all hope for a safe and incident (news) free weekend. We hope you can join us for tonight's broadcast.
White House changes tune on ElBaradei (Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Diplomatic Correspondent)
In fact, last September NBC Nightly News reported that the U.S. had spied on ElBaradei as it tried to make a case that he was compromising nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Hardliners — led by John Bolton, then in charge of anti-proliferation efforts at the State Department — suspected that ElBaradei was "coaching" Iranian officials during nuclear negotiations.
During an interview at the time, ElBaradei told NBC News that he was not surprised by the spying. "Look, if I have been coaching the Iranians I have been coaching the Iranians to tell them they ought to cooperate — that they need to be transparent."
Tonight's promoted story (Steve Johnson, Daily Nightly editor)
Women in the Bush administration are more high profile, more powerful and more influential than ever before. From the First Lady to the Secretary of State, we'll look at their changing - and unprecedented - role in the government. Tonight on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
NYC subway terror threat?
Several sources have told us over the last few days that the source informed the U.S. that operatives would try to smuggle explosives onto the N.Y. system, in an imitation of the London and Madrid attacks. The explosives, the source said, might be concealed in baby carriages.
Several officials have told us that they doubt the credibility of the threat. The source has apparently given some accurate information in the past, and some inaccurate, and there are reasons, they say, to doubt this new information.
Nonetheless, because the source gave a specific time for the planned attacks — the second week in October — the N.Y. police have decided to make some of this information public and ask riders to keep a sharp eye.
However, there are no plans to raise the terror threat level.
Prior to this development, the President's remarks on global security had led the agenda. I'm about to have another meeting with Executive Producer John Reiss to go over our coverage options.
For the moment I'm watching Bono do a sound check via closed circuit TV from the Conan O'Brien studio. There are many great perks that come with working here. This is one of them. Bono is in the building, five stories above us, and "Vertigo" has never sounded better.
Back to the broadcast: working out the first block right now... we have a lot of great reporting tonight, including more on Harriett Miers, the storm zone, the Supreme Court and the high cost of energy. We hope you'll join us.
Karl Rove in the hot seat?
"Karl Rove has absolutely not received a target letter" according to the source and also claims "the special prosecutor says he has not made any charging decision."
Rove has already testified three times before the CIA leak grand jury.
In addition, White House officials say they "have no idea" about any additional testimony from officials here regarding the leak investigation.
Editor's note: As this story develops, you can find more details here.
Tonight's promoted story (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)
Americans already have sticker shock at the gas pump. But now, with temperatures dropping, many will also face staggering costs to keep their homes warm this winter. It takes some planning to save money, and now is the time. Tonight, we give you some tips on what to do to improve the energy efficiency of your home.
Tonight, we are road warriors. Along with producers Jean Harper and Subrata De, I am driving six hours to Atlanta, spending the night in a downtown hotel and flying to New York in the morning. Those of you who travel for a living will find this saga totally familiar and unremarkable: as it's often virtually impossible to fly between two points anymore. I've always found it hard to argue with the sentiment, voiced by fellow haggard travelers, that if more senior government officials flew commercial, flying wouldn't be such a grueling and harrowing ordeal on board buses specially fitted with wings.
So from a Hertz car eastbound on 110 in Mississippi, we are proud of the work we did here... especially considering this trip was completely in response to a sad flurry of e-mails that told of horrible destruction and suffering and begging for media attention in Mississippi. After former President Clinton's visit today, former President Bush's visit here next week will be another shot in the arm. We met some wonderful, patient, stoic and friendly people. Our experience made our travels worthwhile, and it's so clear to all who come here that the people of Mississippi deserve the nation's sympathy and immediate attention.
Editor's note: you can find links to all of the broadcast's reports (text & video) from Mississippi in Brian's report from tonight with former President Clinton. Just click here.
Biloxi by the numbers (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)
Brian won't have time to file his usual pre-broadcast post again today, so I'll fill the void. The broadcast originates tonight from Biloxi, Miss. The City of Biloxi Public Affairs Office kindly furnished these statistics that show you just how much things have changed in Biloxi, which had a population of 55,000 before Katrina came ashore.
- 3,167 students in Biloxi public schools when classes resumed Sept. 26
- 6,125 students in Biloxi public schools before Katrina
- 5,014 structures destroyed by the storm (approximately 20 percent of pre-storm structures)
- $54,795: Amount of gaming tax city would be collecting per day if casinos were operating
- 15,000 casino employees now out of work
For more, watch the broadcast and visit www.biloxi.ms.us.
The faith of Harriet Miers (Jim Popkin, Senior Producer, NBC Investigative Unit)
One other clue to Harriet Miers' personal and religious views may be found in her involvement with an evangelical missionary group based in Dallas.
Miers is a former Board Member of Pioneer Bible Translators, and continues to advise the group on legal issues, a senior official with the group tells NBC News.
Pioneer Bible Translators is a non-profit organization dedicated to introducing Christianity to what the group describes as "Bible-less people groups" in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, West Africa, Asia and other remote parts of the world. According to the group's Web site: "Pioneer Bible Translators' desire is to work with Jesus Christ in discipling the nations. We believe that enabling people to hear and read God's Word in their own language is an essential part of discipleship. In many developing nations throughout the world, there are tribes, languages, and peoples who have no Bible. These groups may number from 500 to 10,000,000 individuals —people who have never heard of the Lamb that was slain for them. What do we mean by unreached? We mean that five percent or less of the population of the people group are Christian; a church does not exist within their own culture; there is little or no missionary presence; or there is no access to Scripture in their own language. That leaves 2.2 billion people among 1,739 people groups who are unreached."
The chief operations officer for Pioneer Bible Translators, Wes Beasley, tells NBC that Miers provides legal guidance to board members. He says Miers is no longer a board member, although the current Texas Secretary of State corporations database (link, account required) lists Miers as "director" of Pioneer Bible Translators.
A watchdog organization in Texas that examines religious charities says that Pioneer Bible Translators is a respected Dallas group with a track record of promoting literacy and spreading the gospel around the world.
In former President Clinton's motorcade
Gulfport deja vu
We are rolling through the tent city Army and National Guard Base that the airport grounds have become. We've now exited the airport and under State Police escort are off to our first stop. The people of Gulfport, some of them standing on a street corner as we exit onto a major boulevard, are straining to figure out who is behind the tinted glass of the lead vehicle. As we drive, five weeks after the hurricane, both sides of the roadway are strewn with twisted siding, appliances, cardboard and other debris. As we said last night, it seems as if the storm was yesterday.
Tonight's promoted story (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)
Rebuilding in the hurricane zone — the government is spending billions of your tax dollars on essentials like roofing and portable classrooms. But with normal bidding rules suspended, it could end up paying twice as much in some cases. Is it a "Fleecing of America?" Brian broadcasts live again tonight from the storm zone and will blog later in the day if conditions permit.
What's left of Waveland, Miss.
A scene-setter: the drive into Waveland is jaw-dropping. On one side is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Gulf. On the other is Banda Aceh. It's the first time I have truly seen the exact same conditions we saw in Indonesia.
The ground is swept clean in some areas. Only foundations. Various signs read I'M OKAY or give a phone number. Some planks have the house number in spray paint — so insurance adjusters can see that it IS a total loss.
On some blocks you can smell bodies, and the locals have been warned there are indeed un-accounted-for bodies underneath the rubble. The storm surge was reported to be 42 feet high in Waveland at its height.
City Hall is gone, just cement stairs remain. Ditto the solitary wheelchair ramp at the Post Office. All the businesses have been destroyed. Most trees have been sheared off. Debris is plastered to fences and lines all roadways. The three women we met who are running a de facto City Hall out of the firehouse are all saints. People who heard our broadcast was in town came by to thank us. Most have slightly hollow eyes. These days, Waveland is more a collection of planks, girders, insulation, fixtures and furniture than it is any kind of recognizable town.
The drive at night to Biloxi is as eerie as any movie, starting with the U.S. military checkpoint before entering the hotel/casino strip along the water. Drivers, bathed in bright light, are asked to show ID by soldiers — and must then name a destination and show proof. We are in a hotel with some functioning rooms. The hotel took 27 feet of water in the lobby.
Along the darkened main road along the Gulf, the sights are enough to scare adults. Off to the side of the road, there are huge, off-kilter and sagging buildings... enormous structures... some the size of Kmarts or roadside hotels. You soon realize they are the floating casinos of Biloxi. Because local law prohibits gambling on land per se (or did), the giant hotels LOOK like some of those in Vegas, but they eclipse and thus mask the casino portion floating out back on the Gulf waters. You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how entire floating casinos came over a storm wall and crossed a highway before coming to a rest... and still not be able to visualize the violence that this hurricane brought to bear on this area.
Tomorrow the light of day will bring new perspective, and tomorrow another broadcast from this devastated region.
Tonight on the broadcast (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)
Brian thought this might happen. Communication remains difficult out of Mississippi, so he won't be able to file a preview of the broadcast before hitting the air. Tonight's live location is Waveland, a coastal town that the mayor says was 60 percent destroyed by Katrina. We'll have a report from Campbell Brown on the devastation and Brian introduces you to one family who barely survived the storm but remain determined to rebuild.
We'll also have coverage of President Bush's wide-ranging press conference and the latest reaction to the Harriet Miers nomination. Plus, our series "Supreme Change" continues with a look at the hot-button issue of abortion. Is Roe v. Wade really in jeopardy? Justice Correspondent Pete Williams reports.
The second front
The immutable truth is this: for as positive as Americans deserve to feel about their (not necessarily their Government's) rapid and generous reaction to Katrina, there are moon-like landscapes in this very state where it looks as if the storm hit YESTERDAY. People can go without for only so long. Patience has its limits.
We can afford to promise human dignity as a birthright in the wealthiest nation on the planet. It is our sincere goal on this trip, as journalists with access to a national audience, to focus the attention of the millions who watch Nightly News each night on the plight of those in Mississippi who have nothing, still. The worry here is: when the cameras pan off this region, the attention goes away. For the next couple of evenings we intend to swing the focus back here, even if the picture shows only barren land. More later as we approach airtime.
Enroute to Mississippi
I neglected to mention that toward the end of last week we welcomed the relatives of our friend Charles Evans, the 9-year-old who was befriended by Campbell Brown in the Convention Center in New Orleans. Charles has millions of fans across the country (and no shortage of people anxious to find out where to donate money toward his future) and made a guest appearance on the Emmy Awards in Hollywood. His family members and friends report he is happily enrolled in school and living in a safe and secure home, rented for him by others with an option to buy. A number of us are following his progress and stand ready to help in any way, as surrogates for those we will never meet... who have written us in droves to express goodwill and a desire to help. A wonderful moment took place in our newsroom: our trusty desk assistant Hillary Guy walked in and realized who our visitors were and was instantly and warmly embraced. Hillary made and fielded a number of calls during those frantic days... but as yet had not met an ACTUAL family member. We all feel like members of Charles Evans' family, and we'd like to think that someday he will think of us in the same way.
More later, after we land and provided we can find a way to post something as afternoon approaches.
Humanity on the Plaza (Bonnie Optekman, Vice President, NBC News IT Assurance)
According to one of my new friends from Habitat for Humanity, the word Oyez (pronounced Oyay) is derived from Swahili and means "Get ready to work." The volunteers cheer "Habitat Oyez" before they go to the work site to indicate to the current workers that they're on their way.
The word may also be familiar because it is used by the Clerk of the Court to begin many Court sessions, including the Supreme Court.
I've been trying all day to "get ready to work" — my regular job that is — but it's difficult. I watch footage from Slidell, La. as the first homes get delivered. I talk and e-mail with folks we worked with all week. Some were more ambitious than I and have photos posted already. Some remark how odd it is not to hear the hammers any more. I marvel at notes like the one I received from volunteer builder, JP "Thunderbolt" Patterson, a musician who became so much a part of the operation that they named his particular point person role and at every "wrangler" shift change would ask me who the new "JP" was. He worked on site 12 hours a day all week but wrote a note to thank us. And I look at my "Team Mobile" sign (as in Alabama). We used these signs — all names of cities hit by Katrina — to identify the teams of volunteers and they held their signs high as we crossed the street from volunteer tent to work site at the shift changes. The gang let me have the "Mobile" sign because of my involvement with NBC Mobile.
A very random sampling of responses from people who have done a great deal of travel for NBC told me they've never experienced anything like last week.
- Homes built: 45
- Hours worked (building): 111
- Volunteers: 3,500
- Hammers: 248
- Pounds of nails: 2,250 (50 lbs. per home)
May it please the court
Tonight we'll re-air a portion of an interview with the late Chief Justice Rehnquist featuring his thoughts on the subject of balance on the Court. He notes that his court was heavily weighted toward judges (Justice O'Connor was the only one who's name had been on a ballot, just as Justice Thurgood Marshall was the only justice of his time to have represented defendants at murder trials) and away from those from academia or elective office. For so many reasons, in this age of media saturation and noise as an excess of information, where everyone seems to get their 15 minutes (only to promptly attempt to stretch it into an hour-long special) the Court is the last mystery. Most of the Justices could still walk virtually unrecognized down the streets of most major American cities. I'm not sure if that says good things or bad things, but I do know it's proof that the Court is the last enclave left.
And what a nice note struck from the bench today in open court: when John Paul Stevens noted that Chief Justice Roberts had more oral arguments (before the Court as advocate) under his belt than all the current sitting Justices combined. If the video tea leaves can be read with any specificity on this kind of thing, relations between Stevens and Roberts appear more than cordial... there is no doubt mutual intellectual respect between the two men.
The Court, and the President's newest nominee (and longtime friend) will be the topic of much of the broadcast tonight. But we'll also have a fair amount of coverage from the storm zone tonight, including fair warning to all those who, like my father, prefer buying used cars. After these storms... think twice. Also tonight we'll have an update on that awful tragedy in the midst of one of the classic, sparkling weekends on Lake George in recent years: the deaths of 20 senior citizens when their tour boat capsized.
Finally, a travel note: we'll originate the broadcast from Mississippi tomorrow night. While we've concentrated much of our coverage on the suffering in New Orleans (for reasons related to the fact that we rode out the storm in the Superdome, and thus had a claim on following the story from then on) it's the wrenching e-mails I've received from Mississippi that are the reason for this trip. Many accuse the feds of not helping enough, and most accuse the media of not focusing enough attention on their plight. We will do our part to change that. Correspondent Campbell Brown is making another return trip to Mississippi, so her reporting can coincide with our stay there. Travelling with me will be our in-house road warriors Subrata De and Jean Harper... two of the folks who make so much of the travel possible and get none of the credit.
So we'll see you from there tomorrow night. We will post as often as electronics and communications allow, in an area still hurting for basic services and utilities. Before then, we hope you'll join us for tonight's broadcast.
New Orleans' impressions (Marisa Buchanan, NBC News Producer)
Friday I got stuck at a red light on my way to work. In any city in America that happens all the time. But I’m in New Orleans and for weeks now I have been cruising down off ramps, driving on sidewalks and sometimes even navigating the city via Blackhawk helicopter. When I arrived a week or so after the storm, the city was still flooded and it was a ghost town save for the very armed presence of various guards and law enforcement. So on Friday it took me a second to realize that I was actually backed up three cars behind a traffic light. Rolling stops at non-working lights had become the norm as often I would play chicken with the Army trucks rolling down a one-way street.
There are other things too. The Starbucks in the Sheraton that closed within the first hour it was open a few weeks back has now got a line out the door. There is even a liquor store on the corner that is selling city postcards. (I bought five.) Despite those details, life here is anything but normal. I still brush my teeth with bottled water, and I’m still stopped after dark and asked where I am going.
The kind of investigative reporting I’ve been doing down here feels different, too, partly because the people you are tracking down are displaced everywhere. I’ve gone to buildings and addresses to get clues on how to reach people. Random conversations with locals lead me to someone or somewhere else. And because of the communication problem, I never know if I can reach them on the phone or see them ever again. I had more than one TV crew with me remark that they liked going out on these excursions. It was challenging. We were turning over rocks and piecing together clues in an empty town that is rightfully preoccupied with saving itself.
The city has become quite familiar to me now, but it's the kind of familiar that no one who lived here before would like me to have. I know how to get to the Red Cross shelters and where to see sailboats on houses and small planes in trees. I have a good understanding of how the levees are supposed to work and hints to why they didn’t. I can tell you where to visit folks who never left their houses, their pets or their bar stools. And depending on the day, there is always a best way to circumnavigate the checkpoints, get warm food or confront the mayor.
I had access to areas people who have lived here for years are not allowed to go back to yet. The reason, I know, was to report back on the devastation. In one area of St. Bernard parish, the mud being cleared down a street was the exact same picture I saw in a residential area of Banda Aceh, Indonesia after the tsunami. My photographs from now and from January resemble each other: a lost shoe, an abandoned bicycle, a personal story trapped in the mud.
I’ll surely come back to New Orleans, but it won’t be the same that it was these past weeks. Friday I went to the Maple Leaf bar, where people crowded in the dark of this desolate city to listen to some of its famous jazz music. For a few hours people remarked, "This feels normal." A little normalcy in these parts will go a long way. I hope when I return to this city it will reintroduce itself to me.
Now to the props, led off by David Frum who, I was reminded today, takes his place among the Great Mentioners for having called this pick early.
I read a fine piece of journalism Friday night. Senior Producer Sharon Hoffman sent me home with it after calling it to my attention. Based on my understanding of (and some experience with) daily life in New Orleans, it's a sobering and instructive piece of writing by Michael Tisserand, who usually edits and writes for the alt-paper Gabmit Weekly, but is filing for Tucson Weekly while displaced by Katrina.
I also, having met the author finally, am a new convert to JustOneMinute... the blog of Tom McGuire... if for no other reason than to admire his treatise/stat comparison of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. The numbers concerning men on base and two-out scenarios are staggering! In all seriousness, I know Tom is regarded as one of the leading sources in All Matters Plame and certainly has his fans.
Off to give a speech in Midtown Manhattan, back for the afternoon editorial meeting and to write a piece we are doing for mid-broadcast tonight on the Supreme Court. As for its theme, here's a hint: I just ordered videotape of the late William Orville Douglas. More later...
Tonight on the broadcast (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)
As the Nightly News staff gathers in the office of Executive Producer John Reiss to consider what stories to share with you tonight, I'll go on record and say that the nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court will be today's top story. Expect complete coverage tonight on the broadcast, including an historical look at how a nominee's ideology often changes after they take a seat on the bench. In the meantime, you can read a biography of Harriet Miers and get reaction to the nomination throughout the day here.