In bombing story, TV had reporting, but not restraint

April 21, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The many layers of television news coverage were all in place in Oklahoma City yesterday. The result was a barrage of words and images of the bombing there for almost every taste -- if you could get past some of the show-biz style packaging of the death and destruction.

At the top of the television food chain were the three broadcast networks -- CBS, NBC and ABC -- along with cable channel CNN.

By far, the most thorough coverage was offered by CNN. It was the first to report the bombing at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, and it was still running with the throttle wide open on live coverage yesterday afternoon. Anchorman Bernard Shaw was on the ground in Oklahoma City, with the bombed-out Alfred Murrah Federal Building as his backdrop.

The overall pattern of CNN coverage was similar to its work on other big stories: Hit the ground running with a flood of raw, gripping, often unedited images of destruction at ground zero; then, move to its network of bureaus and stringers to put the pictures in context.

The early pictures on CNN came from Oklahoma City TV stations, and did raise some questions about editing -- especially those of blood-soaked and, in some cases, dead children.

"Early on, the emphasis was on showing gruesome pictures -- that's a fact. And I think some of them shouldn't have been shown," said David Roberts, news director of WBAL (Channel 11), the NBC affiliate in Baltimore.

But that's a debate that's been going on for years with CNN. It's generally first with the most -- but what about the unedited images and unconfirmed reports?

Yesterday afternoon, CNN had Jim Clancy in London providing details of a possible witness to the bombing sent back to the United States by British authorities, while Jim Polk was in Oklahoma City with the names of three men arrested there and in Dallas, possibly in connection with the bombing.

Should the names of those men, who authorities were not even willing to describe as suspects, have been used? Perhaps not. But in the heat of television competition, a network may make errors while trying to air information that others don't have. These errors are later forgotten or forgiven.

"We were clear in our reporting that they have not officially been classified as suspects. We believe we reacted within our rights and responsibilities," CNN vice president Steve Haworth said yesterday when asked about naming the men.

Viewers appear to like CNN's coverage. Its ratings Wednesday were among the highest earned by the news channel -- bested only by coverage of the Persian Gulf War and the Clarence Thomas hearings, according to spokeswoman Paige Prill.

And the competition on this story was tremendous.

CBS had the first live pictures out of Oklahoma City Wednesday and the first anchorperson in place. Dan Rather was in Vietnam on assignment, but Connie Chung got to Oklahoma City for the evening news Wednesday and Thursday nights, as well as prime-time specials. Both "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Evening News" will continue to be anchored out of Oklahoma City today.

NBC made good use of "Dateline" Wednesday night for a strong prime-time presence. It had Bryant Gumbel and "Today," as well as Tom Brokaw and "NBC Nightly News," coming out of ` Oklahoma City yesterday. Both will continue to broadcast from there today. John Bianchi, a spokesman for NBC News, said the network has scrapped the "Dateline" scheduled at 9 tonight and will instead do a show that offers a "minute-by-minute account" of the bombing.

ABC News and its "Primetime Live" couldn't seem to decide whether to go with Forrest Sawyer in Oklahoma City or stick with Diane Sawyer's interview with Carroll O'Connor on the suicide of his son.

Meanwhile, the TV tabloids were also all over the Oklahoma City story -- bringing another layer of competition, and affecting the way networks covered the story.

"From Oklahoma City, where words cannot begin to describe the anger, the sorrow and the pain that have enveloped this town . . . we have found stories of hope and stories of heroism," Barry Nolan said breathlessly to open yesterday's "Hard Copy" broadcast.

"Inside Edition" also opened with the Murrah Building as its backdrop yesterday. Geraldo Rivera's "Geraldo" will be broadcast from Oklahoma City today.

"The tabloids are going to do those personal stories," said Kim Akhtar, a spokeswoman for CBS News. "But they don't have the resources to put it in context with State Department, Justice Department and White House reports, for example. The networks can only do that, and, so we try to do more with context."

None of the local stations sent reporters to Oklahoma City. But all had extensive coverage. For example, WBAL, WJZ and WMAR carried live network feeds of yesterday's FBI press conference at 4 p.m., then continued carrying the network news instead of syndicated fare. The news included release of FBI composites of two suspects, presented almost like "America's Most Wanted."

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