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Shining in a Crisis

Louisiana TV stations—in an economic slump and still trying to recover from the financial hit inflicted by Hurricane Katrina—are still managing to be everywhere, including in the air and, literally, underwater, to cover the latest hit to the region.

While the BP oil “spill” is a huge story for the national media, it is a huge and hugely local story for stations in Louisiana. And it could be coming to another Gulf or coastal state near you, as the slick keeps coursing and hurricane season gets in gear. (And could we please come up with a bigger word than “spill,” which sounds like an aged aunt upsetting a teacup?)

As B&C reports this week (see Gulf Coast Stations Blanket Oil Mess), stations are hitching rides on helicopters or hiring divers to get underwater shots of the offending rig. While national news operations could suffer from BP fatigue, that is unlikely given the potential scope of the damage, and it will continue to be a story of local interest and importance for months to come.

The FCC has been collecting comments on a proposal by cable operators to fix the retransmission consent system, based in part on the contention that broadcasters are asking too much for their signals. Lowballing the value of broadcast signals runs counter to observable reality and ratings charts. Retrans money, broadcasters keep pointing out to the commission, helps pay for things like news coverage and emergency information.

In situations like the BP tragedy, broadcasters are both an important news outlet and a vital public-safety arm. If that is a card broadcasters seem to overplay in various venues, the incident more than suggests that the medium’s value as a lifeline remains undeniable.

The broadcast and cable news media’s value as a spur to action is also on display. The national attention focused on the story through all platforms, but particularly TV, is getting rightful credit for helping push the administration to be more active in the oversight and cleanup. Anderson Cooper, whose coverage from Katrina helped turn “heckuva job, Brownie” from praise to a badge of derision, has been one of the many reporters putting a spotlight on these murky and troubled waters.

There is much hand-wringing in Washington these days about how to create a future for a news business in crisis. Clearly, the business is in the throes of wrenching changes. But note that when a big event demands attention and resources and perspective, the electronic media still fi nd a way to put us at the center of the action and put officialdom’s feet to the fire. Yes, it is important to find a path to journalism’s bright future, but it’s also good not to forget that the present can still shine brightly.