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CNN does it right in Haiti, but Fox drops the ball

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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. So he had the privilege Wednesday afternoon of interviewing Bea, who told the world that, despite her cries: “I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t scared of anything.”

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Haiti’s misery and suffering have been hard to watch, but they have offered confirmation of the invaluable contributions made in times of crisis by mainstream news outlets like CNN.

Some of the Earth’s neediest people have been visited by an almost unbearable, added burden. And cable television’s pioneering outlet has risen to the occasion, making sure the world sees the painful realities.

CNN’s determination to stick with the news stands in stark contrast to its competitors, particularly Fox News, that in prime time have increasingly been committed to building their brands with political commentary over straight reporting.

When critics accuse Fox of being a tool of the conservative political movement, the company’s executives counter that they deliver serious news during much of the day.

But its prime-time headliners expose the values of the entire operation, and this week they’ve given abysmally short shrift to the biggest crisis in the world.

Why dwell on one of our closest hemispheric neighbors in its hour of dire need, when -- like both Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck -- you can conduct prolonged, frothy promotional interviews with Fox’s newest contributor, Sarah Palin?

Why focus on all that misery, if, like Hannity on Wednesday, you can engage conservative virago Michelle Malkin in a soaring conversation about the Obama administration’s “culture of corruption.”

Bill O'Reilly played his no-Haiti card too, managing a gripping discussion Wednesday with Bo Derek about the threat to the West’s wild horses. Not to mention those whales being hunted by the Japanese in the Southern Ocean.

Cable operator MSNBC couldn’t match CNN’s boots-on-the-rubble immediacy either. NBC anchor Brian Williams, morning host Ann Curry and others were holed up at the Port-au-Prince airport Wednesday evening because of security concerns, before getting into the city Thursday to cover the story more directly.

But at least the cable affiliate did its best to tell the story from outside the epicenter. It dedicated more than two hours to the quake in its three major prime-time shows, compared with less than seven minutes presented by Fox’s biggest stars Wednesday night, according to the liberal media watchdog, Media Matters.

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.

A Fox insider told me she didn’t want to be quoted but called those assessments unfair, saying that coverage outside of prime time of the disaster had been considerable and would be ramped up Thursday night. During Fox’s equivalent of the evening news, Shepard Smith did provide significant coverage of Haiti. Greta Van Susteren devoted a chunk of her program to the disaster, though not from the scene, as intended, when her plane was turned away from Haiti’s crowded main airport.

Fox’s lack of focus on the subject during its most popular programs was not for a lack of resources. A moneymaking juggernaut, the cable giant had about 20 employees in Haiti by midweek, nine of them on-air personalities.

Based on what went out over the air, though, you’d hardly know. Only one of those correspondents seemed able to get into the heart of the capital, with much of the reporting coming from staging areas and the secure airport.

CNN, in contrast, succeeded much as it did five years ago, when it dominated coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

By Thursday, CNN had nine correspondents and anchors and some 40 others on the ground, along with generators and equipment that allowed it to broadcast pictures far superior to the competitions’ grainy, streaming images.

As he has in many disasters past, Cooper showed he has a talent beyond filling out another one of those too-tight T-shirts. He anchored coverage from CNN’s outpost near a teeming park late into the night. He maintained his abundant poise even as refugees camping nearby seemed on the verge of rampaging in the face of a rumored (and nonexistent) flood.

Cooper’s colleagues repeatedly were virtually alone among American broadcasters in getting to the streets of Port-au-Prince, to bring home the anguish gripping the city.

On Wednesday, Ivan Watson stood outside an overflowing clinic, bodies strewn about the entryway, and interviewed a woman unable to get treatment for the ghastly fracture of her leg. Sanjay Gupta found Haiti’s president at the capital’s airport, the leader conceding he had no idea where he would sleep that night.

On Thursday, Watson reported on another girl (this one only 11) trapped by rubble, as rescuers tried to decide whether to save her by amputating her leg. Susan Candiotti described an “amazing, homespun” rescue effort, in which a brigade of volunteers hacked, chiseled and pried a man from beneath a five-story building. And Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence added important context, showing how a ruined port would make it difficult to unload emergency cargo.

No matter how much CNN succeeded in delivering the story, it will never make me stomach the self-promotion that it and other outlets insist on weaving throughout their coverage. Can we please get through an hour without heaping praise on our correspondents’ valor (however real it may be)? Maybe Gupta can’t be stopped from playing both reporter and doctor (he is a neurosurgeon, after all), but how many times are we going to have to watch that video of the good doctor bandaging the head of a 15-day-old girl?

As to Fox, it upped its game in Haiti a bit on Thursday. The station featured reports from Port-au-Prince by field-hardened correspondent Steve Harrigan. A veteran of the Rwandan genocide and other scenes of natural and man-made destruction, Harrigan clearly felt the anguish in Haiti, as he reported on a mother “insane for her loss” after the death of her five children. As he tried to describe the encounter later to Smith, Harrigan’s voice cracked with emotion.

O'Reilly even devoted the first quarter of his hourlong program to the quake, focusing mostly on his concerns that U.S. aid will be lost if it can’t be kept away from thugs and Haiti’s corrupt leaders.

And those reports from the stalwart Harrigan or other reporters on the scene? Someone up the production chain apparently deemed those not worthy of Fox’s biggest shows.

When a crisis is at hand, I’ll take a more concerted commitment to the straight news approach, thank you. That way we can keep our gaze focused on what’s really happening on the ground.

“This is just one building. This is just one block,” Cooper said after reporting on young Bea’s rescue this week. “The suffering here has just begun.”

james.rainey@latimes.com


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