On Oct. 14, Michelle Kosinski, an intrepid new NBC News correspondent who made her name this summer chasing Natalee Holloway’s ghost through Aruba, found herself up a creek without a paddle in the middle of the Today show.
Only, she had a paddle. What she didn’t have was a creek.
In what would have been a beautifully choreographed segment, Ms. Kosinski was reporting live about flooding in Wayne, N.J., in a canoe that was floating down a submerged suburban thoroughfare.
“Eight days of rain, and some neighborhoods don’t even look like neighborhoods anymore,” she told Today viewers at the top of the 7 o’clock hour. “Little rivers with their own strong currents have taken over the streets, and people are getting out, any way they can.”
And it would have worked, too—the artful image of a correspondent Huck Finn–ing her way through a Jersey subdivision—had two guys in hip-waders not walked through the shot moments later, at 7:02 a.m., as if on cue. Water sloshed around their ankles. Ms. Kosinski looked like a grown woman in a nice outfit paddling her way around the kiddie pool.
“When it happened, it was funny and embarrassing, and I just thought, ‘O.K., this probably looks a little bad, or it looks unusual at least, to the people who are watching,’” Ms. Kosinski told The Observer four days after the segment aired.
By then, the clip had made the rounds in e-mail forwards and on cable news shows.
That afternoon, Don Imus went wild over the gaffe. Tucker Carlson picked it up later, and on Saturday the hosts of Fox and Friends discussed what they were calling the “Flood Faux Pas.”
“If Michelle Kosinski’s canoe had sprung a leak on NBC’s ‘Today’ show Friday,” the Associated Press guffawed, “she didn’t have much to worry about.”
On Monday, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart had his go:
“Knock, knock,” he said, after showing the clip.
“Canoe believe they’re doing this on television?”
Ms. Kosinski is taking the ribbing in stride. An experienced television reporter with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she began her television career at WIFR in Rockford, Ill., and in 2001 was voted “Best Reporter in Charlotte” by the city’s arts and entertainment magazine for “her straightforward approach.”
She became a national correspondent several months ago after working for four years at the NBC affiliate in Miami.
But her first whiff of national attention was not all positive, either. She and an NBC camera crew scored an impromptu tour of suspected Holloway kidnapper Joran van der Sloot’s jail cell in August. During the tour, she unexpectedly ran into Mr. van der Sloot, with whom she conducted a brief interview.
She was accused later by a few armchair critics of sneaking into the jail, and Mr. van der Sloot’s lawyer successfully sued to prevent NBC from airing the footage on the grounds that the segment violated his client’s right to privacy, though he had consented to the interview.
Ms. Kosinski said Aruba prison director Fred Maduro offered Ms. Kosinski and her crew the interview.
“In both cases, it was similar,” Ms. Kosinski said. “People thought it was one thing, when in fact it was another. There was never any attempt in either case to do anything underhanded.”
Savvier now for her earlier bout with critics, Ms. Kosinski said she wasn’t surprised by the response to Canoegate, only by its intensity.
“It’s kind of painful,” she said, “because you want to explain yourself. The most important point for me to get across is: Yeah, it looked really stupid, but there was never any attempt to make it look like it was worse of a storm than it really was.”
Here, in the interest of air-clearing, is exactly what happened:
On the eighth straight day of rain on the East Coast, and Ms. Kosinski’s third morning of reporting for Today from Bergen County, she was in a neighborhood in Wayne that had been flooded when the nearby Passaic River overflowed its banks.
On Days 1 and 2, the buttery-voiced 31-year-old from Cinnaminson, N.J., had worn hip-waders and issued crisp, contextualized reports about good citizens fleeing their sodden homes, about rescue efforts under way.
But any broadcast news producer will tell you that the public appetite these days for death-defying weather reporting is the strongest it’s been since the day Dan Rather clung to a pole during Hurricane Carla in 1961; as strong, in other words, as it’s ever been.
We’ve seen Fox’s Shepard Smith get blown over like a giant toddler in gale-force winds. We’ve seen Anderson Cooper in his red CNN windbreaker flapping around the Gulf Coast like a kite. We’ve watched Geraldo Rivera nudge or not nudge rescue workers out of the way, and Ted Koppel cajole a morbidly obese senior citizen into leaving her structurally unsound New Orleans home. We’ve witnessed outrage, compassion, pageantry, hyperbole, hunger, nausea, violence and the inimitable resilience of the human spirit. What could possibly be left?
We have not seen a correspondent paddle through a few inches of standing water in what is rumored to be a $1,500 canoe.
This, in more innocent form, is the idea that flashed through a Today show producer’s mind on Thursday night. Streets were flooded. Residents and rescue workers were riding around in boats. It made perfect sense.
They bought a boat and had it delivered the following morning. Ms. Kosinski arrived early to practice paddling around. She had been in a canoe before, she said, but never by herself, and never in waters any rougher than a slow-moving stream. They tried to set up the shot at an intersection where the water was waist-high and the current was strong, but “they couldn’t light it,” Ms. Kosinski said. “The microphone was wireless and it wasn’t working, and with all the equipment, they couldn’t wade out into the deep water.”
So producers asked Ms. Kosinski to paddle to where the water was shallower. She did. She wasn’t happy about it. But she did.
“Even though I wanted to show deeper water, in the end I said O.K. I didn’t really think it was inappropriate,” she said.
At the top of the 7 o’clock hour, Matt Lauer introduced the report:
“ … But first, the severe flooding here in the Northeast, as more rain continues to fall today. NBC’s Michelle Kosinski—I guess, she’s in a canoe …. ”
Boy, was she! From the belly of the craft, Ms. Kosinski delivered a report in which she described evacuation efforts and mentioned that there was deeper, rougher water nearby. Just as she was kicking it back to Katie Couric, the two men splashed their way into the frame.
Mr. Lauer perked up. “Is there some kind of severe drop-off there between the foreground that we—go back,” he said. “We saw these guys a second ago, Michelle, walking—are these holy men walking on top of water? What’s going on here?”
Ms. Kosinski, who last month was named this year’s “hot reporter” on Rolling Stone magazine’s annual “Hot List,” improvised gamely. “Why walk,” she said, “when you can ride?”
“Is your oar hitting the ground, Michelle?” asked Ms. Couric, not one to miss so golden an opportunity.
“Of course not,” Ms. Kosinski replied. “It’s as smooth as silk.”
She explained that the producers wouldn’t let her broadcast from deeper waters because the current was too strong—a rationale that would prove all too prescient when, in a segment during the 8 o’clock hour, they did let her broadcast from deeper waters and the current swept her out of view. (“For me,” said The Daily Show’s Mr. Stewart on Monday, “the first rule of storm coverage has been never paddle out of the frame.”)
In retrospect, Ms. Kosinski said, “I wish that I had done things differently. I wish I had said right off the bat, just so it was totally clear, ‘Katie, Matt, we’re in a foot of water here, but out further it’s waist-deep and the current is strong.’”
The hosts’ teasing was “hilarious,” she said. Everyone else’s teasing? A little tiresome, but “to be expected. As anyone else who has power, I think we deserve and need scrutiny,” Ms. Kosinski said. “But I do think that sometimes out there, there’s a feeling to want to see the negative over the positive and the benign.”
Her one lingering concern: “That it might have looked to some people like we were trying to put something over on viewers,” she said.
“That would just be idiotic.”