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'Times-Picayune' Editor Jim Amoss, a Voice for New Orleans

The newsroom Jim Amoss leads was widely praised for its unflinching coverage of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. In a piece one month ago, Amoss said "New Orleans has become two cities -- an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River's crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people."

21:15

Other segments from the episode on January 4, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 4, 2006: Interview with Jim Amoss; Review of Carrie Underwood's “Some Hearts” and Martina McBride’s “Timeless.”

Transcript

DATE January 4, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Jim Amoss discusses Hurricane Katrina evacuations, the
devastation and rebuilding of New Orleans
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Newspapers, the saying goes, are a daily miracle, and perhaps never has the
expression been more apt than at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. So wrote
Douglas McCollam in the Columbia Journalism Review. As floodwaters rose
during Katrina, the staff of the daily paper had to evacuate their building.
For three days, they were unable to get out the newspaper, but they continued
to publish on their Web site. The staff has been back in its building since
October 10th. In an article about the paper in the LA Times, James Rainey
wrote, `The Times-Picayune exposed poorly constructed levees, picked apart
obtuse FEMA policies, debunked overblown claims of evacuations under violence
and traveled as far as The Netherlands and Japan to show how other communities
have coped with flooding and disaster. My guest is the editor of The New
Orleans Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss. He's been with the paper since 1980, been
editor since 1990 and grew up in New Orleans. The paper's offices are located
near the low point of the bowl-shaped city. I asked Amoss to describe what
the neighborhood around the newspaper building looks like now.

Mr. JIM AMOSS (Editor, The Times-Picayune): Well, you can picture it most
vividly if you imagine being in a city at night and all the urban life and
lights that we're accustomed to in a city. In my city, if I look out my
window after sundown, what I see is pitch black. I'm surrounded by a
neighborhood that is essentially dead as of yet. It has no power and no human
habitation for blocks and blocks. And 80 percent of the city of New Orleans
is that way. We're essentially--we have become two cities: the 20 percent
that was not flooded, which is up and vibrant again--the French Quarter, the
Garden District and parts that tourists for the most part know. But the 80
percent that were flooded are very slow to recover.

GROSS: What about electricity? You say you look out and everything is dark
around you. Is there no electricity in that part of the city, and do you have
ample electricity?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, we have ample electricity and so do a few larger companies
around us, but the residential neighborhoods that are immediately adjacent to
us are completely without it. And every night, I drive home through blocks
and blocks of utter darkness and desolation.

GROSS: Does that mean no traffic lights, either?

Mr. AMOSS: You're absolutely right. It means no traffic lights, stop signs
at major intersections. In New Orleans, there's--the etiquette of how to
approach a major intersection has developed greatly over the past several
months, and that's just one of the many changed conditions of life here now.

GROSS: Do you feel safe going home? Do other people on your staff feel safe
going home after dark?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, as long as one observes the stop signs, I think, yes, I
feel safe. There's really nothing to fear accept the darkness itself. There
are no menacing humans around, so it's really a relatively crime-free and safe
city at the moment. But in those dark parts, it's a bit grim.

GROSS: Does the neighborhood that the paper's in still smell of the toxic
waste that flooded New Orleans?

Mr. AMOSS: You know, the smell of flooded New Orleans, in my opinion, has
been greatly exaggerated. Visually, the city has changed greatly, and in the
flooded parts, it looks gray and the vegetation is essentially dead. But I
find there really is no great accompanying smell, and the toxicity also seems
to be less than was initially feared.

GROSS: At the newspaper, how have you divided the pages of the paper between,
you know, more investigative reporting on what's happening and what happened
and just more practical information for readers, you know, about services
that are opening or, you know, helping people who are still trying to locate
lost loved ones?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, the investigative aspect permeates everything we do, whether
it's on the business pages or, on page one, writing about levee breaches or
writing about how federal money is being spent or whether the levee boards are
accountable for the way in which they managed their business. As for the
practical aspect, and there are so many of them, we devote page after page to
such eclectic items as groups of citizens meeting, neighborhood organizations
getting together, when various schools will reopen, and questions about
insurance, questions about levee reconstruction and the pace of it. Those are
really--take up quite a bit of space in our paper these days.

GROSS: How do you stay in business now? The circulation for the actual paper
part of the newspaper must be down 'cause so few people are living in New
Orleans. A lot of businesses that would advertise aren't in New Orleans now,
either. So how are you getting enough money to actually stay in publication?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, New Orleans has actually--the metro area of New Orleans has
rebounded more strongly than I think some national reports might suggest.
Already in the city of New Orleans alone, we have, by some estimates, as many
as 140,000, 150,000 inhabitants. And in the suburban parishes surrounding New
Orleans, we're almost back to 90 percent. So--and the newspaper's heft and
the newspaper's degree of advertising reflects that. So I think we and the
community have come back far more strongly and more vitally than anyone,
including ourselves, would have believed in those dark days of September.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Amoss. He's the editor of The New Orleans
Times-Picayune. One of the editorials that you wrote for the paper basically
said that there are a lot of Byzantine and wasteful political structures in
New Orleans, and this is a good opportunity to get rid of them. What kind of
cleanup are you hoping that the hurricane will end up inadvertently creating
in government?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, one of the most wasteful agencies, interestingly enough, is
the agency that controls the local end of levee maintenance and levee
inspection, the so-called levee boards. In New Orleans alone, each parish, in
some cases, one parish has more than one levee board, and these levee boards
are not coordinated with each other. They have different responses when a
hurricane comes, and on top of that, they have other duties that have nothing
to do with hurricane protections in levees, such as maintaining a police force
that hardly ever makes any arrests, mowing grass in odd lots that they happen
to own. It's absolutely vital that Louisiana have a--muster the political
resolve to unify these agencies so that there is--they're stripped of all
these adjunct duties that have nothing to do with levee protection. They need
to act as one coordinated force that has one coordinated voice.

GROSS: There's been a lot of blame passed around between city, state and
federal officials and elected leaders about who was responsible for the
disaster in New Orleans. And I'm wondering if you and the editorial board has
reached any conclusions of who made the biggest blunders.

Mr. AMOSS: I think local and federal and state authorities have been blamed
in many cases for the wrong things. For example, the evacuation of the city
of New Orleans was a huge success, and yet it is being described over and over
again as a huge fiasco. But any city that can empty itself of 80 percent of
its population with 48 hours notice, which is about what we had after the
storm turned, I think can be proud of having achieved a remarkable feat. The
bungling occurred, in my view, in the days immediately after, when the people
who remained were just not provided for and were grouped together in horrible,
almost animalistic conditions that were just subhuman. And that is a blame
that I think local authorities have to shoulder and have to do something about
in the future.

GROSS: You know, a lot of people are saying that a lot of the horrible
conditions--that people were able to get away with that because most of the
people who were in the Superdome and at the Convention Center were
African-American and they were poor. And yet the mayor of the city is
African-American himself, so, I mean, you wouldn't accuse him of being
insensitive to the issue of race. So how do you make that add up?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, I think the premise is perhaps ill-founded. The conditions
were horrific. I think they would have been horrific regardless of who was in
those shelters, and they were so because of poor planning, because of lack of
coordination. On the part of the federal government, there was an almost
criminal negligence in speedily coming to the aid of a city. I mean, this was
the greatest urban natural disaster in the history of this country, and the
response was not commensurate. The response was pathetic.

GROSS: Do you feel like you have a sense yet of what the rebuilt New Orleans
might look like in terms of how the city will physically look different and
how the makeup of the city will be different? The residents will--will the
class and race and ethnic population remain similar to what it was?

Mr. AMOSS: You know, I think--I start with the belief that New Orleans, and
maybe New Orleans is different from most cities in this regard--that New
Orleans has a really fierce pull and hold on its citizens. And even those
people who swore in September that they would never come back are now feeling
that pull and finding it very hard to resist. And I think that attraction of
the city for its citizens knows no class bounds or racial bounds and that what
we'll end up with is a racial and ethnic mix pretty much what it was before
Katrina. But I do think it'll be a while before we rebound to the size that
we were. I think we'll be a smaller city for some time to come and, I hope,
in many ways, a better city because of the various institutional reforms that
I think will take place.

GROSS: I would imagine that in New Orleans right now, there's a lot of people
coming in who want to help but maybe also a lot of people coming in who want
to make a quick buck. Do you see a lot of both right now?

Mr. AMOSS: I saw both very vividly illustrated yesterday as I was gardening
outside my house and mostly the positive. I can't tell you how many neighbors
stopped to admire just the progress of what I was doing. One lady said, `Oh,
you're trying to say welcome home.' And somebody else walked by with a camera
and wanted to take a picture of me next to a freshly planted bed of pansies.
And on the other hand, about every 10 minutes, a pickup truck would stop by to
pick up garbage bags filled with yard debris. And it dawned on me that the
reason for the frequent pickups is that they get paid by the load, and so
they're making a killing on picking up readily available garbage bags. And
you see that phenomenon in car-towing and all the other little trash removal
tasks that need to be attended to in our city.

GROSS: But is that helping, though? Is that helping set a fire under people
to remove debris?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, it's helping in that it's occurring faster than it would
under any ordinary circumstance. I mean, there are literally mountains of
debris that have disappeared from parts of this city as a result of this kind
of action. But it has probably cost more than it need cost because of
multiple layers of contracting and just the kind of wages that you have to pay
people to do this work under these circumstances.

GROSS: My guest is Jim Amoss, editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jim Amoss, editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
During the hurricane, Amoss and his staff had to evacuate their offices and
head for dry land.

Were you in on the meeting that decided when it was time to go?

Mr. AMOSS: Yes, it was Tuesday morning, the storm has passed on Monday and,
you know, Monday night, the winds had pretty much died down, but strangely
enough, the water continued to inch up, and we found out through our reporters
and photographers that the levees had been breached. But we were far enough
away from those levees that it seemed still a little farfetched that it would
reach us. Well, when we woke up on Tuesday morning, it became obvious that we
were going to be inundated just as much as anybody else, and the water was
rising about an inch every seven minutes. So we sat down as a group of
editors and talked about this. And at that moment, our publisher stuck his
head in my door as well, and as a group, we concluded that we had to not only
get out but we had to get out within the next half-hour.

GROSS: How did you do it?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, we ran through the building of our newspaper. People were
still asleep in their sleeping bags, people were having breakfast in our
cafeteria, people were already beginning to work, and we just ran through the
building shouting, `Get out! Get out! Go to the loading dock!' And at the
loading dock where normally newspapers are shipped out for delivery, we
started shipping out people for delivery to we did not know where in the backs
of our delivery trucks. We just pulled up a dozen or so newspaper delivery
trucks and started moving people into the backs of them.

GROSS: So if you didn't know where they were going to go, where did the
trucks start driving?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, we knew that the first order of business was to get to dry
land. And dry land was right in front of us on the interstate that borders
our building. But to get to it, we had to go through about a mile of heavily
flooded service road. And we just had that one goal at first: Get out of
this flooded area of this service road, get onto the interstate and then
figure out what next. We knew that the only exit from the city at that point
was across the Mississippi River bridge, which is about two miles from our
plant. And it wasn't until we had crossed the Mississippi River and gotten to
the dry other side that we parked our vehicles and started figuring out what
next.

GROSS: Yeah, and what--I mean, how did you figure out where you could go?
You had so many people, it's a big operation.

Mr. AMOSS: Well, you know, as newspaper people, we have this instinct about
not missing a day of publication. And the first thing that we decided is we
have to have a newspaper tonight. And then we concluded we have to send some
reporters and photographers back into that city to report on it and so that we
will have a paper tonight. So we gave a group of about 15, 16 volunteers one
of the trucks. They headed back into the city, and then we had to decide
where we were going to produce this newspaper and how we would set up a
temporary newsroom.

GROSS: And where did you set it up?

Mr. AMOSS: Well, we went to a small town in Louisiana, Houma, which--a New
York time zone newspaper that we'd been in contact with over the years, and
they helped us produce the first printed editions of the paper in the coming
days. And then the rest of us not involved in production and design drove on
to Baton Rouge, arrived there that night, that Tuesday night and, through some
incredibly generous help from the dean of the LSU journalism school, set up
shop at the university in the journalism classrooms and produced the newspaper
from there.

GROSS: Has this experience made you rethink the role of a newspaper in the
life of a city?

Mr. AMOSS: This experience has affirmed for me the importance that a
newspaper can have for its readers, because a newspaper has the resources to
know its own backyard and does indeed know it because of having reported on
it. And there's really no substitute, and I don't mean to sound arrogant about
it, but there's no substitute for that intimate knowledge of people's
neighborhoods, of people's communities and what's running and what isn't and
why what happened happened. There's no substitute for a hometown newspaper
reporting in that way. And anecdotally, I would say our readers have let us
know that and have told us in various ways how much it meant to them to have
that kind of local reporting on a very intense and constant level, both
informed them and also sustained their spirits.

GROSS: The Times-Picayune now has a section that's devoted to Mardi Gras.
You know, in Philadelphia, being at this far distance, it seems like the plans
to proceed with Mardi Gras are a little controversial. From what I've been
reading, some people think it's an inappropriate time to start partying,
whereas a lot of people think it's a perfect time to have Mardi Gras and bring
people back into the city and bring a sense of joy back to the city and a
sense that the city can carry on. Have you written any editorials about Mardi
Gras?

Mr. AMOSS: Yes, we have. We believe--I believe that Mardi Gras is a
community celebration, not what it is largely portrayed as on national TV as a
party of college students in the French Quarter. It's a city celebration that
encompasses all the neighborhoods of this city and involves people in not only
partying but also putting on these elaborate parades and just fantastic music
by local high school bands. And it is an expression of the spirit of this
city, and without it, we believe that it would be a capitulation of something
that's so essential to what New Orleans is about.

GROSS: Will you be there on Mardi Gras days?

Mr. AMOSS: Absolutely. I plan to be in town for the eight-day duration of
the celebration and to partake in it fully, as I have every year.

GROSS: Costume and all, mask?

Mr. AMOSS: We mask on Fat Tuesday, and we encourage all our readers to do
likewise.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck to you and your
paper.

Mr. AMOSS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Jim Amoss is the editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Here's a composition by Charles Mingus called "Sketch Four," performed by the
Mingus Dynasty band. Mingus composed this piece at the end of his life. This
track opens with a recording of Mingus singing the melody.

(Soundbite of "Sketch Four;" Charles Mingus scatting followed by instrumental
music)

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews albums in the top 10 of the Billboard
country chart by Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood's new albums
TERRY GROSS, host:

"American Idol" star Carrie Underwood's album, "Some Hearts," is number one on
the Billboard country chart. Martina McBride's album, "Timeless," debuted at
number one and is now number nine. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, was struck by
the marked contrasts between these two hit CDs and contrasts their appeal.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARTINA McBRIDE: (Singing) You were mine for just a while, now you're
putting on the style and you never once looked back at your home across the
track. You're the gossip of the town but my heart can still be found where
you tossed it on the ground. Pick me up on your way down. Pick me up on your
way down...

KEN TUCKER:

Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts" and Martina McBride's "Timeless"--two more
different CDs cannot be imagined within the same genre. Underwood is the
winner of the latest edition of TV's "American Idol," that immensely popular
spectacle of the talentless judging the overreaching. No one makes it as an
"Idol" finalist without demonstrating a ruthless ability to throttle a melody
in its musical crib. Overenunciation, floridly elasticized notes and
terrorizing emotionalism are the hallmarks of an "Idol" winner and Underwood
is no exception.

I played Martina McBride at the top of this review so that you might not tune
away. Here, however, is Carrie Underwood with a singularly repellent piece of
schlock country called "Jesus Take the Wheel," which portrays a woman in
spiritual and physical peril set on--Can you guess which day?--that's right,
Christmas Eve.

(Soundbite of "Jesus Take the Wheel")

Ms. CARRIE UNDERWOOD: (Singing) She was driving last Friday on her way to
Cincinnati on a snow-white Christmas Eve, going home to see her mama and her
daddy with the baby in the back seat. Fifty miles to go, she was running low
on faith and gasoline. It'd been a long, hard year. She had a lot on her
mind and she didn't pay attention. She was going way too fast. And before
she knew it, she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass. She saw both
their lives flash before her eyes. She didn't even have time to cry. She was
so scared. She threw her hands up in the air. Jesus, take the wheel, take it
from my hands, because I can't do this all on my own. I'm letting go so give
me one more chance to save me from this road I'm on. Jesus, take the wheel.

TUCKER: That's Carrie Underwood blowing her lungs out not in the service not
of the Lord, but mammon. This girl is so busy selling her soul to take over
the record charts that she barely has time to place the right emotion in the
right verse. The result is a blaring hodgepodge of romantic self-pity and
self-empowering power ballads. The best of these is the title song, written
by an excellent craftsperson of such pop, Diane Warren.

(Soundbite of "Some Hearts")

Ms. UNDERWOOD: (Singing) I've never been the kind that you call lucky,
always stumbling around in circles. But I must have stumbled into something.
Look at me. Am I really alone with you? I wake up feeling...

TUCKER: By contrast, Martina McBride took a chance in recording "Timeless," a
collection of old country tunes. McBride has had a solid career going,
working in the contemporary country vein of pop-influenced songs, so the
eloquent whine of pedal steel guitars and fiddles that burst forth on this
defiantly old-fashioned collection was a gamble.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McBRIDE: (Singing) It don't hurt anymore. All my teardrops are dried.
No more walking the floor with that burning inside. Just to think it could
be, time has opened the door and at last I am free. I don't hurt anymore. No
use to deny...

TUCKER: The funny thing is McBride, a modest, meticulous performer, is
probably helped in the consumer acceptance of her CD by the recent influx of
far more flamboyant, in-your-face performers such as country rockers Big &
Rich and redneck woman Gretchen Wilson. They crow about their hero worship of
older country stars like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and thus revive the idea
that there's gold in these oldies, such as this one, written by Haggard and
Bonnie Owens.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McBRIDE: (Singing) Today I started loving you again and I'm right back
where I've really always been. I got over you just long enough to let my
heartache mend, and today I started loving you again. What a fool...

TUCKER: That was Martina McBride making the country safe for classic country
music. In her own way, McBride is as shrewd as Carrie Underwood. McBride
pads her album of country oldies with surefire crowd-pleasers like Loretta
Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough" and the Lynn Anderson hit, "I Never Promised
You a Rose Garden." But where Underwood makes it sound as though she's into
country music primarily because it was a good counterintuitive strategy as an
"American Idol" contestant, McBride makes her CD sound as though it was music
she had to record before her heart burst. It's the fundamental difference
between ambition and artistry.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large of Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts" and Martina McBride's "Timeless."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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