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Thursday, 17 August, 2006


Dr. David D. Perlmutter,

Today I received your letter containing the “peer” reviews rejecting my Visual Communication Quarterly submission for the special journal edition entitled Katrina: A TV News Disaster.  Please allow me a moment to respond; and please know that I am doing so with utmost respect and courtesy.


My submission is the 26min. video compilation – not the accompanying “written text”.  All three reviewers are missing this, on all fronts, to a point which suggests the reviewers may be inadequately trained to evaluate critical, visual ethnography.

The VCQ editorial statement reads that it is a “peer-reviewed journal of theory, research, practical criticism, and creative work in all areas of visual communication.”  And that “Methods range from tightly controlled quantitative studies through critical analysis, essays, qualitative scholarship and creative art.”  (Italics obviously are mine.)  Additionally, the call for submissions included, “All approaches to scholarship or visual expression are welcome”.


My video submission is not visual support for a verbal text; it is the text.  It is a visual text that speaks directly to your intended topic and should be reviewed as such, for example, like a photographic documentary, visual essay or ethnographic film. 


Of course, I would like to fully respond to every comment by the reviewers, but why double back upon every wrong path?  However: Blind Review #1 has made several excellent comments (the oddly mistaken “typo in the URL” comment notwithstanding), but this person clearly pines for some other submission, not mine. Blind Review #2 wants to “imagine this in an AJR or CJR”, yet these publications differ significantly from VCQ in their submission call and mission statement.  Blind Review #3, the review which I most question, is strangely responding like the very audience I am trying most to reach with my video.  This glib review is almost as dangerous as Katrina’s news coverage itself. 


Content analysis, not my primary intention here, need not always be verbal/numerical.  Indeed, editing 26 minutes from 3 national networks over five hours is no insignificant sampling.  “Qualitative interviews with viewers” is not within the scope of a visual retelling of the broadcast coverage.  And to posit that, “Live television is most effective during events like Katrina”... or asking “Should the producers have focused the cameras on the weather maps and studio anchors?” borders on the myopic, if not the idiotic.  Can my visual essay (ethnography) speak more clearly to these points?  At bottom... are these same questions asked of the photo submissions you do publish?


We know now TV failed miserably in its initial coverage.  The responsibility of live news during events like Katrina is to inform, not entertain.  There can be no other position considering the senseless loss of life concurrent with these thinly veiled broadcast theatrics.  Would some other creative (video) submission to VCQ illustrating failed reporting efforts of far-away killing fields, AIDS wastelands, or global pandemics be reviewed with similar comments?  Hurrincane Katrina was not “genocide”, but it was A TV News Disaster.  I illustrate that, clearly.


In a verbal, scholarly world images are not always allowed to stand for themselves.  (As Sontag writes, “And the caption-glove slips on and off so easily.”)  Clearly, I wrestle with this as well.  I felt obliged to include a ‘accompaniment text’ -- loosely polemical in style that framed my approach, content, and intention.  However the video remains, to use your words, one “variety of meditation” that speaks unequivocally to your topic and falls squarely within your stated guidelines. 

My video can and should stand on its own merit as an exemplar of Denzin research, Eisenstein montage, Brecht surrealism, Murrow editorial, maybe even News Corp. entertainment.  It is a straightforward attempt to re-tell a TV story by using TV’s own language.  I proffer the very content of the news itself, or in other words visual communication in a mediated world.  Yet, somehow my video does not meet VCQ criteria for publication?  Regardless, broadcast news did fail, people died as a result of their malfeasance, and TV networks remain unaccountable.  My video may be the single best visual illustration of the initial Katrina news disaster VCQ can publish, and it remains my only truly important response to your “blind” reviewers.

Please, see it again for yourself:


Thank you so much for the opportunity to submit.

Warmest regards,

Holland Wilde






December 2005

Hurricane Katrina: A TV News Disaster

Video compilation by Holland Wilde


Introductory Text:  It has been tough-going for news images lately.  During the ongoing Iraq war, the Bush administration essentially capped any possibility for sensational daily images by prohibiting both in-the-trenches video and photography of homebound body bags.  Before that, endless rebroadcasts of the collapsing World Trade Towers on 11 September 2001 ceased as news networks were shamed into a modicum of visual respect by victim families, New York City officials and the religious community.  This sobering reaction left TV news to focus on static images of rubble instead; and of course, “static” is TV's foremost enemy.  Even the devastating tsunami, centered in the Indian Ocean region in December 2004, was a world away from typical foreign bureaus, creating a visual void filled with only a few numbingly repetitious home video clips captured in barely useable cinéma vérité fashion. 

And so as Hurricane Katrina made landfall on 29 August 2005, all major U.S. TV networks were poised to cover what was potentially to be the most devastating natural disaster to ever hit the United States.  No network could afford (literally) to miss this unique opportunity.  As the mounting storm's increasing size was trumpeted throughout the lead-up hours, embedded reporters and crew were dispatched to every corner of harm's way to provide up-close-and-personal video of this “killer” category-five storm.  This was network TV's moment to shine with firsthand pictures of nature's awesome “cruelty”. 

But what did these images ultimately convey?  Consider this representational compilation of the actual Hurricane Katrina news coverage: 


This 26 minute video was gleaned randomly, but chronologically, by alternating between two TiVo recorders, from live broadcast, over a 5.5 hour period (7:30am - 1pm), as the hurricane smashed into the Gulf coast.  In it we see representational excerpts of weather coverage from every major network.  We also witness potentially lethal verbal-visual disconnections: between leveled facts and hype, between intelligence and ignorance, between warning and exhilaration, between help and hindrance.  Indeed, both TV text and images were broadcast simultaneously, but they were often in direct opposition.  Could viewers decipher the presentation?  

Broadcast competition demands that TV news imagery be compelling... riveting... by any means necessary.  Why else would reporters stand in a raging storm?  To this end, hyperbole is ammunition against any media competition.  In this video compilation we see numerous examples of extreme disaster reporting today: anger over missed studio cues (00:20); designing scary weather graphics (04:47); screaming into the wind to be heard (05:34); searching for any destruction possible (06:57); hoping to be hit harder than other colleagues (09:18); referring to New Orleans as “America's Bangladesh” (10:14); absurd reporting vantage points (11:25); dodging debris (13:30); suspenseful technical glitches and malfunctions (17:00); hyping WX tracking systems as the same technology used in the Iraqi war (17:50); refusal to heed their own evacuation advisories (19:08)... all these are employed by news for theatrical effect in hopes of holding viewer attention. 

However, viewers need not always be visually entertained.  Indeed, the result of Hurricane Katrina's nonstop reporting had an overarching POV of recklessness and irresponsibility.  Typical network competition quickly spiraled into frightening one-upmanship for capturing extreme video imagery that supplanted usable, informational logic.  The networks' approach not only failed to communicated an accurate storm overview, it created a visual concoction where the reporters appeared to “play” the storm in video game fashion... battling an “evil” nature while exchanging concern and safety - for levity (03:55) and maximum visual effect (04:55).  Collectively, the reporters flaunted brazen disregard of death and devastation to such levels of incongruence that, if death were to come, it seemed both reporters and viewers could simply hit the ‘replay button’ and launch the disaster video game again without physical or emotional consequence. 

A review of the video montage illustrates that reporting during Hurricane Katrina went recklessly beyond journalism or factual dissemination, and actually promoted a potentially lethal interpretation of survivability -- that the storm was presented as an exhilaration, as fun.   Evacuation was certainly an option (albeit previously reported to be a cumbersome, traffic-jammed, alternative), but as viewers clearly saw for themselves the hurricane clearly could be survived.  Moreover, by staying to witness the event live, one could partake in a most unique and thrilling occasion.  “We survived Hurricane Katrina!”  Every news channel showed it could be done.

Not only did this catastrophe have all the elements that fuel news reporting today, it also delivered an essential economic component: extreme, localized visuals with little need for the trappings of journalism.  TV news today is merely live aggregation; no longer are facts collected, which are then arranged, cross-checked, edited, and presented within a reasoned, sensible format.  That old-school style is now deemed too expensive, too stale, too opinionated.  The future of news is with “breaking”, “news now” events.  Hostage situations, police car-chases, natural disasters, among others, all require little more than a single on-location camera with studio voice-over audio.  The mode of operation for news today is: let the viewers see the “unfiltered” action unfold; parade studio “experts” to hypothesize, speculate, obfuscate; fill the time slots between commercials with inconclusive repetition; and, hope for spectacular visuals to retain the eyeballs.  This video illustrates what we all ‘know’ only too well.

As the great swath of devastation swept across the Gulf coast, news networks chose to concentrate their efforts on broadcasting titillating, sensational video.  Conversely, information about immediate survival tactics, options for localized assistance, routines for medical emergencies, and preplanning for a methodical recovery in the eventual aftermath were ignored. 

Television news does the American citizen a grave disservice by broadcasting extreme, ”breaking” images.  Words and images communicate differently.  TV news makers clearly understand this, yet, in lieu of helpful, usable information, they continue to exploit catastrophic events primarily for easy monetary gain.  Every network and newsmaker owes an apology to the citizens of the Gulf coast for their unconscionable reportage during Hurricane Katrina,.  They also owe a heartfelt promise to report responsibly next time, from the onset.