Friday, January 15, 2010

CNN The Early Winner In Haiti

 I'm a print guy. Only my mother thought I was handsome enough to turn to television for a career. Which is my way of backing into television coverage in Haiti.

But first some perspective and a dose of history. A strange phenomena occurred when television in its infancy offered wall-to-wall coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas in November 1963. People were glued to their sets that miserable weekend. At the same time they bought newspapers by the truck load to verify what they saw on the black and white screens.

Little has changed except television's live coverage has undergone incredible technological advances and fewer people read ... anything. We live in an age of instant gratification and television feeds that addiction.

During the Katrina hurricane destruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, another interesting thing happened. While national television did a marvelous job, the real stories beneath the big picture were delivered accurately separating fact from rumors by the city's two major newspapers on their websites.

It is not a nasty little secret that television reporters get the bulk of their news from local and embedded print reporters.

Same goes for events on the debris-ridden ground in the Hatian capital. It was Reuters that first reported vandalism by desperate natives at a relief warehouse and dumping bodies on the street to intercept humanitarians trying to deliver much need supplies, particular water.

When network and cable news teams arrive at a disaster as a locust, it becomes a competitive contest for the survival of the fittest.

In that regard, CNN is the clear winner in the early days of the Haiti earthquake coverage. By sheer courage and cunning and superior use of on-air transmissions, CNN once again proved what it does best -- the audio and visual coverage of straight, hard news.

 Here's now James Rainey, a television critic, described it today in the Los Angeles Times:

Anderson Cooper clambered to the top of a pile of rubble along a ruined Port-au-Prince street, joining the clutch of men digging fervently inside a dark crevasse. As his cameraman zoomed in on a pair of small, naked feet, the CNN anchor described the struggle to free 13-year-old Bea.

The images swept the cable station's audience, in an instant, into a moment as intimate as it was epic, as unsettling as it was affirming -- a microcosm of Haiti's struggle these last three days. Could a handful of amateur rescuers, armed with a single shovel, win one skirmish against the country's sweeping devastation?

A few moments later, the men dragged the dusty, disheveled girl -- one leg probably broken -- into the sunlight. Some 18 hours after a massive earthquake, Cooper and his CNN colleagues were the first Western broadcast journalists who delivered the most indelible images from the heart of the impact zone.

Meanwhile, NBC News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams and his crew were standing safely at the Port-au-Prince airport doing his best what he had been told was going on inside the city. 

This is no knock of Williams, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer or CBS's Katie Courek. I suppose in the minds of the TV moguls, they believe their audience will follow their anchors anywhere the news breaks.. Keep in mind that rarely did Walter Cronkite -- the most trusted man in America -- leave the CBS studio for major news events and the network did not suffer ratings withdrawal symptoms.

With the exception of Cooper and Fox's Shepard Smith (who remained in the states), these people are more news readers than reporters the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Tom Brolaw and Peter Jennings. That's not a knock. It's just the nature of the TV business today.

Bucking the prime time blanket coverage of Haiti was Fox News stable of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren who granted about a quarter of their hour shows to Haiti and the rest their basic formula of political and cultural topics.

Not surprisingly, Fox averaged 2.9 million viewers to CNN's 1.5 million and MSNBC's 977,000 on Wednesday night. It proves the moguls correct: That viewer loyalty, creatures of habit, they cling to their favorite channels.

I think these ratings are a mixed bag. Viewership in the western time zones are not during the prime time slot but two to three hours earlier during the dinner hours. Also, even for the most jaded TV news junkies, by the time they reach the 8.p.m. start of prime time they look for a welcome reprieve, probably taking refuge in one of the network reality shows or a movie on the AMC channel.

But Fox critics such as Rainey won't let go:

Randall E. King, a professor of media communications at Indiana Wesleyan University, said he was surprised and disappointed to see Fox devote so little attention to the story. King said the evening hours are crucial because they signal what a TV outlet views as the day's most compelling topics.

"When a real crisis comes and there's an opportunity to really serve as a leading news organization, to make a conscious decision to not cover this is an abandonment of journalistic responsibility," said King. The one-time television reporter said the prime-time hosts, despite their opinion focus, should have paid more attention to the crisis just off our southern border.

 Rainey did note that all the networks' were making their way into the city by Friday and filing more comprehensive reports.

Howard Kurtz, who I believe is the best media critic, writes about the first three days of coverage in Haiti in his Media Watch column in the Washington Post.

As journalists have parachuted into the misery that is Haiti, they have had to cope with both primitive conditions and communications difficulties. 

On Wednesday night, the television coverage was often reduced to little more than radio. An opening shot with Katie Couric froze, forcing CBS to switch to Harry Smith in New York. Brian Williams and Ann Curry were speaking by cellphone when their audio dropped out. But both networks managed to get the shots up later. 

By Thursday, after a night in which many correspondents slept at the Port-au-Prince airport, the satellite technology and streaming video and Skype were working better but transportation was still limited. The reporters did the best they could. CNN's Sanjay Gupta aided a father whose 15-day-old daughter had received scalp lacerations. 

Television does a superior job with its approach of shock and awe. As for the details on the ground, I still prefer to absorb it in print.

I'm just a dinosaur at heart.

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