Sunday, March 16, 2008

Life Imitates Art in Journalism

Towards the end of January, I wrote a post entitled "Proximity to the News." It was triggered with the news that Rupert Murdoch was planning to move The Wall Street Journal out of the Manhattan financial district; but, like many of my posts, it was inspired by an episode from The Wire. Here were my first two paragraphs:

There was a telling episode in the first episode of the current season of The Wire. The scene is the conference room where the "budget meetings" are held, which determine which stories are going to appear in the following morning's paper. Several of the mid-level staff are staring out the window at a large plume of black smoke. Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) comes in to ask what's happening; and someone shows him the smoke and says that there is a fire across town. His immediate reaction is, "Who's covering it?," which is met with blank stares.

Proximity to the news used to matter. If a reporter was sitting in his/her office and saw smoke out the window or heard sirens coming from the street, (s)he (or someone else) would run outside to find out what the story was. The very name "The Wall Street Journal" connoted an institution of journalism that would provide the most up-to-date and reliable "word on The Street" because it was "on The Street."

Last Friday night CNN did not have to worry about looking out the window at a large plume of black smoke. Something more serious descended upon their headquarters building. Nevertheless, at least according to David Bauder's report for the Associated Press, with the news figuratively at their doorstep (and, apparently, literally on their rooftop), there was a business-as-usual reaction that could have been written by David Simon:

CNN switched to its scheduled taped programming early Saturday even though a major story _ downtown Atlanta's first recorded tornado _ had literally blown right through its news headquarters.

The storm shattered windows in the newsroom and the network's library late Friday. A computer was missing after it was apparently sucked through a window. No one at CNN was hurt, a spokeswoman said.

The storm caused damage and injuries, but no fatalities in the Atlanta area.

CNN started covering the story on its doorstep shortly before 10:30 p.m., but at midnight switched to tape of Larry King interviewing Tori Spelling for its normal overnight schedule, until resuming news live at 7 a.m. Saturday.

"This is an important story and we gave it appropriate coverage," CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson said. "We fully covered the storm and the extent of the damage within our regularly scheduled programming. There was no need for pre-emption."

Rival MSNBC also showed taped programming during the overnight hours, but did occasional live reports about the storm.

CNN monitored the story during the night, then sent reporters Cal Perry and T.J. Holmes onto the streets early Saturday to report on the damage. Anchor Betty Nguyen held up a piece of debris that she said was part of the building's roof.

CNN spent considerably more time on the story Saturday morning than the other networks did. When CNN covered a briefing of Atlanta officials, Fox News Channel was on a financial news program and MSNBC showed a tape of Keith Olbermann's "Countdown."

CNN briefly switched to taped programming again at noon Saturday because of new storms in the area. The network didn't want to risk being knocked off the air while in live programming, Robinson said.

This is not to suggest that television news reporters should be ambulance-chasers; but it carries at least a whiff of a priority system that places the latest activities of a celebrity ahead of the impact of a storm in your home town that was major enough to make the national news on other networks. Indeed, reading Bauder's account of their programming decisions in the context of my own recent criticism of CNN, it may be about time for them to change their middle initial, replacing the "N" (for "news") with an "S" (for "schmooze")! On the general question of priorities, however, it seems as if there were things more important than CNN in Atlanta on Friday night. Since I do not get my usual BBC World Service Television fix on Saturday's, I decided to check out the BBC NEWS Web site to see how the storm was covered there. Their priorities were revealed in the final four paragraphs of their report:

As officials priced the damage from Friday's twister at up to $200m (£99m), Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue declared it a "disaster".

Basketball fans watching a game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome had scrambled for cover as the stadium roof rippled and debris rained down.

The nearby Philips Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks were playing the Los Angeles Clippers, was also hit.

And the headquarters of news network CNN in the city was left with damaged ceilings and windows after being battered by Friday's storm.

In other words CNN placed third behind two basketball games, which were not mentioned in Bauder's story, leading me to wonder if those games had been ignored by the CNN sports crew. So there you have it, folks: When disaster hits Atlanta, you can now expect better coverage from the BBC. Would this be enough to convince Comcast that it is time for them to allocate one of their channels to a full-time BBC World Service feed?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i like this story by Cal Perry. It goes back to some of the stuff he did for Combat Hospital - also amazing. I recommend it - I think this guy has great potential