Crowds swarmed Decatur Street on Saturday afternoon, gathering at the would-be entrance to Jackson Square — dubbed this week as "CBS Super Bowl Park at Jackson Square." The network has taken over most of the park with four stages for sports, news and talk shows as the network home to Super Bowl XLVII. Across the street past Washington Artillery Park, the network's assembly of trailers, equipment and newsrooms. Tourists snapped photos past security to catch a glimpse of the CBS sports desk. Hare Krishnas followed a faux second line of San Francisco 49ers fans. Others wandered with Hand Grenades or Mardi Gras beads, and the street deadlocked traffic with pedestrians.
But inside the gates, dozens of CBS crewmembers worked silently as stages broadcast just feet from Andrew Jackson's statue.
Two TV cameras focused on Scott Pelley, anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, framing him against St. Louis Cathedral. His team on-set and plugged in from New York, where the show typically is broadcast, makes final adjustments down to the second before cameras roll. "There's a person in Los Angeles, probably a computer, ready to cut me off when it comes to that last second," Pelley says with a foot propped on a red steel utility box. Minutes later the show begins.
The headlines: a report from Mali, day five of the Alabama hostage, online hackers, and three stories from New Orleans — catching up with Russell Honore ("the man who faced down Katrina") inside the Superdome, a profile of Trombone Shorty by Michelle Miller, and a look at the Loyola streetcar line and economic boosts to the city ("they don't need a football game to tell them what they already know," reporter Jim Axelrod says).
"Beautiful piece," Pelley tells Axelrod. "Well written, nicely shot."
The broadcast wraps, and a "Krewe of CBS Sports" second-line emerges from Cafe du Monde outside the gates.
Pelley's three-day stretch of interviews went from Mayor Mitch Landrieu (yesterday), to Honore (this morning), and President Barack Obama (tomorrow before kickoff).
"I will be asking the president about the lessons he learned from the New Orleans experience," Pelley says from inside the CBS production center (“New Orleans newsroom”) near the Mississippi River. "Watching the people come back from where they were."
Pelley is revisiting New Orleans for the first time in dramatically different circumstances, from when the Superdome was a symbol of tragedy and coordinated failure, to now, as a host to the country's biggest party of the year and broadcast to more than 110 million people. Eight years ago it was absolute hell on earth. How does a national eye refocus on New Orleans when its last headliners were about an immense tragedy and continual failure, then begin to try to tell the stories of its people?
In recent weeks, New Orleans has been made even more aware of the national media's easy stereotypes: food (gumbo, jambalaya), music (jazz, zydeco), and Bourbon Street — forgetting the dozens of other neighborhoods, cuisine, not to mention the murder rate, education disasters, corruption, and the unfinished stories of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures and their ongoing impact in homes and lives across the city. Those are complex stories. You can't capture those stories in a recap of the New Orleans Saints' road to its Super Bowl XLIV win. You can't tell those stories in a three-minute “where are they now” piece. CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley already is the most-watched evening news broadcast in New Orleans. How does the newsroom change its tone when it broadcasts from the heart of the French Quarter?
Makeshift wood floors lined with extension cords and ethernet cables lay the foundation for the newsroom, split evenly with production staff on phones and laptops and the editorial team writing scripts for the evening broadcast. Two muted TVs screen college basketball. It's not unlike a political campaign office, though it stands only a week before it's dismantled and packed away. Pelley leans back and puts a Starbucks coffee cup on a long table in the room's center.
"I came in the day the levees failed and was waist-deep in water," he says. "There were bodies floating in the streets. I did not know in that moment how New Orleans would be able to get its character back, its most prized aspect. It seemed so devastating and lost at that moment. It was the character that I feared was lost that made the renewal possible."
Yesterday, Pelley sat down with Landrieu and discussed the charter school movement and the state of education in New Orleans post-Katrina.
"The east coast would do very well to look at the lessons New Orleans learned in terms of rebuilding," Pelley says. "People around the world can look to New Orleans for inspiration and instruction on how to recover from any kind of disaster. Nobody knows more about that than the people of New Orleans."
Pelley and Evening News executive producer Patricia Shevlin agree that Katrina isn't the defining moment for New Orleans, but it's the last reference point into the city for a large part of the national audience.
"Katrina is one of those moment by which we mark time but should be looked at today as a much of a triumph as a tragedy," he says. "It's something New Orleans should be extremely proud of — it's an amazing accomplishment."
"It's part of the history now," Shevlin says. "Katrina will be a big part of New Orleans past. But 9/11 was a big part of New York's past. We don't think about it every day. You want it to be part of your history, not part of your present."
A skybridge linking Jackson Square and Washington Artillery Park hangs above Decatur Street at St. Peter Street, advertising "CBS Super Bowl Park at Jackson Square." It's a bit of utilitarian design, Pelley says, as it houses cables connecting cameras from Jackson Square ("It's an incredibly valuable piece of real estate," Pelley says) to a network of trailers behind the Washington Artillery Park steps.
"It's the most amazing set you could ever have," he says. "We're so glad the city was able to give up Jackson Square for a few days — CBS made a huge commitment to it, and to make our presence in Jackson Square look its best."
News meetings began several weeks ago, as CBS reporters began putting together story ideas — how do you look at a city hosting a football game and say, "These are stores to take away." Producers assembled the sets, phone lines, hotel reservations, and millions other logistical issues. "We have teams here that were here during Katrina," Shevlin says. "They know this city, and they're back."
Editorial teams took pitches from producers. "How are we gonna deal with the crime issue? How are we gonna deal with the education issue?" Shevlin says. "And then we want to capture a bit of the culture of New Orleans. … What New Orleans is really like, we hope."
"We have done a lot of planning," Pelley adds. "We held meetings deciding what we did and what we didn't want to do because we only have so much air time. ... I agree with the people of New Orleans — we don't want to do reporting that's disengenuous. We don't want to say, 'New Orleans is open, it's all good, no worries,' because that's not always the case."