CNN answers criticism, not kudos, for coverage of Los Angeles earthquake

TURNED ON IN L.A.

January 19, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

What if you held a press conference to pat yourself on the back for your earthquake coverage and wound up spending much of it defending the job you did?

That's what happened to CNN here yesterday.

The Cable News Network brought out anchormen Bernard Shaw and Frank Cesno, along with executive pro- ducer Bob Furnad, to talk to TV critics about the job it did covering the earthquake that struck the Los Angeles area early Monday.

The first criticism concerned the use of Shaw as anchor during the initial stages of coverage. Shaw and Cesno were in Los Angeles for the Cable Ace Awards and to meet with TV critics for promotional reasons.

The quake knocked out power in the CNN Los Angeles bureau, so one of the network's three satellite news trucks was used as a studio for Shaw.

Critics said CNN should have used the truck to cover the story; it should have been used to file reports from the field, not serve as an anchorman's studio. The anchoring could have just as easily been done from Atlanta.

"We do pursue the news first, and cosmetics comes later," Cesno said. "And there's not a soul at CNN who would dispute that fact."

Shaw said he only anchored from the truck for about half an hour. Then the power came back on in the bureau office.

"If the power hadn't come back on, I think at some point we would have decided to stop the attempt to anchor from the truck and throw it back to Atlanta and freed that truck to go out where the damage was . . . the story was," said Furnad.

Another criticism was that CNN's reporting and picture selection Monday lacked perspective.

While it was a major earthquake, with lives lost and great destruction of property in some parts of Los Angeles, other parts of the city were virtually untouched. There, life went on as normal.

CNN did not show that part of the story.

"That's a real problem with all television coverage -- that the camera essentially captures one image at a time," Cesno said. "As I was pursuing our coverage yesterday, I was struck on more than one occasion that the pictures we were bringing people were universally of collapsed roadways, rubble, apartment buildings crumbled, rescue workers, fires, floods.

"And I had driven in from my dad's house (where he slept Sunday night), driving 30 miles, and I had not seen one problem the entire stretch.

"As a result, I felt compelled on more than one occasion to say, 'If you have loved ones or friends in Los Angeles, let me assure you this city is not rubble; this city is not burning.' "

However, such words are no match for the powerful images of destruction that people were seeing. And there was no attempt to balance them with other images.

"But that is a very real problem, because we were out to cover the earthquake. We were out to cover the damage, not to cover the buildings that were still standing," Cesno said.

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