How’re they doing?

The best of journalism in the Katrina crisis is not what it seems.

Bill Maher said that with Katrina, “we got our press back.” Howard Kurtz said that “journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being.” The BBC said said reporting on Katrina “was public service journalism ruthlessly exposing the truth on a live and continuous basis.” The headline over Slate’s Jack Shafer said that “newscasters, sick of official lies and stonewalling, finally start snarling.”

And, yes, it has been good and bracing and gratifying to see reporters once again challenging power, who damned well deserve to be challenged. I’ve cheered Shepard Smith, Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, the Times-Picayune, the Washington Post (as it has dug deeper than the NY Times), and even the New York Post as it criticized administration performance.

But there shouldn’t be anything terribly shocking or new in this rediscovery of journalism’s balls. The story has been so horrifying — so filled with tragedy, too much of it needless, and injustice and inequity and incompetence and photographic, quotable pathos — that it would take the worst sycophantic administration-ass-kissing lapdog not to see it and get enraged on behalf of all of us.

So, no, though I am glad to see it, I don’t think anger is the best of journalism’s performance in Katrina.

I think the best of it is that journalism knows it has not done its best. That is new.

Last week, as the horror of it only started to rise, Aaron Brown turned his langorous gaze to the camera and tried to ask a correspondent whether we — CNN, reporters, all of journalism — yet had our hands around the story, the size of it. He didn’t get an answer — bad communications got in the way — but that didn’t matter, for the question was the answer. No, we did not nearly know what the story was.

And a few days later, in a cameo on a WNBC telethon, Brian Williams flat out said that news media — and he led the charged — had not grasped or conveyed the full story.

I don’t know whether this is really the mark of a new humility, transparency, fallibility, and humanity in big news. But I hope it is.

The press has had to play catchup to every angle of this story: from the weathermen missing the real story of the storm many times over … to the entire industry only now just beginning to get hold of the deep and profound racial story here… to cozy happy-talk hosts in cool studios having to be slapped around by reporters standing knee-deep in the muck of destruction…. to the enormity and possibly the hopelessness of the work to follow… to the impact on the world economy from one storm’s damage in one day… to the exodus of survivors rising out of that muck… to the failures of government at every level… to the politicization of this tragedy…

But I sense a real difference in the coverage of this: an understanding that they are behind, that this story is too big for any oracle on the network mountaintop to report and understand.

Or at least I hope that’s what I’m seeing.

: See also Alessandra Stanley and David Carr in the Times and Peter Johnson in USA Today.