Thursday, September 01, 2005

Are CNN and Fox covering the same disaster?

Impressed at one moment, unimpressed at another.

Generally, I’ve been pretty impressed with the network news coverage of Katrina provided by both CNN and Fox. Today, the media coverage of this tragedy devolved into the worst of the worst on one network, and the best of the best on the other.

The contrast of the coverage from CNN and Fox watched simultaneously was stark, and disturbing.

CNN: Anchor Kyra Phillips in near meltdown, drilling every person on air demanding that the Department of Homeland Security “call out the military” declaring that the leaders of the community should just admit that their plans were a failure. Breathlessly harping on video that showed two bodies and crowds outside the convention center where help was nowhere to be found. Repeatedly, Phillips drones on about why the military hasn’t been put on the ground, and why hasn’t homeland security simply admitted that the plan has failed, and call out on the “military for help?”

Fox News: Pictures of wave after wave of helicopters bringing injured into a staging area, where others are gathering for busses. Showing three lines in a triage where injured were being seen, treated, receiving assistance, while others were receiving food and being loaded onto busses.

CNN: Anchor Phillips drills a former General on why isn’t the military being called in? Where are the police? The General explains all of the military resources on hand, and on the way. Phillips runs through the video from the convention center again. Can you tell me where they are? She demands, referencing the video. “Is this response enough?” and again, why aren’t they calling out the military?

Fox News: Pictures of New Orleans Swat team members trudging through the flood after shooters who had fired on police.

Press conference from Homeland security on both: Covering extensive information from the “military,” Homeland Security, the Justice Department and FEMA.

CNN: Phillips wraps up her instant analysis of all of the information provided, “They say help is on its way, they say national guard units are on the ground.” And in an amazing editorial liberty adds her own observation that if the national guard units are on hand, they are either overwhelmed or invisible or both.”

Amazing. I’ve been a news director. In fact, I’ve seen that kind of ridiculous break down in professionalism under my watch. I was embarrassed when it happened with my staff, and I am embarrassed for CNN. I hope that isn’t considered a good – or even respectable performance. For one thing, Ms. Phillips didn’t even seem to know anything about what had been reported on her own network. Even CNN.COM had better information than she was obsessing on.

First rule for anchors: you don’t know all the facts, your reporter on the scene doesn’t know all the facts, and YOU are not the supreme all knowing voice of reality.

I once had a news reporter, in my news operation, declaring that our local community was flooding and needed to be evacuated, based on a phone call from someone whose basement had suddenly flooded. Both the person calling, and reporter were convinced that a levee in the city had failed and that the downtown was in a torrent flood. The caller lived in a basement apartment. What actually happened was a broken water main right outside the apartment building. The roar of rushing water, with the rapid flow into the basement sure looked like a flood. But neither had appropriate perspective, to make announcements live on air without a little more consideration.

What one reporter sees at one location within 90-THOUSAND SQUARE MILES is not an appropriate reason to declare the Katrina disaster recovery plan a failure and call for a whole new plan. Which is what Ms. Phillips did on air, on more than one occasion.

There will be many people still waiting several days from now, and there will be bodies – many bodies – tragically in New Orleans. But as they relief effort continues, and reporters actually look for the assistance rather than the victims, it will be clear that progress is being made every day.