TV news juggles two big stories

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The strain of covering a crisis on the scale of Hurricane Katrina was apparent yesterday as television networks and cable channels found themselves juggling the breaking news of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's death, which was announced late Saturday night, with nearly round-the-clock reports on the suffering and relief efforts along the Gulf Coast.

News executives' inability to decide which story was more important was apparent yesterday on CBS, NBC and ABC. All three networks are reshaping their news departments after the departures of longtime anchormen Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, and the death of Peter Jennings.

A vivid snapshot of the dilemma was provided by CBS. At 9:58 a.m., the network interrupted its newsmagazine, CBS Sunday Morning, which was airing a package of Katrina stories, to offer live coverage of a White House news conference on Rehnquist's death.

Sunday Morning anchorman Harry Smith groped for words as he introduced CBS Evening News interim anchor Bob Schieffer, who was reporting the Rehnquist story from Washington. Schieffer has been serving as the network's top anchor since Rather stepped down in March.

"Joining us now from Washington, is CBS News, ah, chief Washington correspondent and anchor of the evening news, Bob Schieffer," Smith said.

Schieffer attempted to cover all bases but brought viewers no clarity. "This death coming as it does in the midst of this ongoing national disaster that we're covering now in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, really changes everything. But now here's the president. Let's listen in to what he has to say."

The cameras shifted to show viewers an empty lectern; CBS was struggling, and it showed.

Though things went more smoothly for CNN, Miles O'Brien, who was at the cable channel's anchor desk yesterday, acknowledged the difficulties in an interview. "The Pentagon has a term for it: full-up response in two theaters."

Neither O'Brien nor any of the other news executives and anchors contacted yesterday could recall having to deal simultaneously with two stories of such significance. "I was thinking that Katrina is such a big story, what could possibly get us to move away from it? I mean, this is apocalyptic stuff we're seeing, how can you stop telling that story?" O'Brien said.

"Then the answer presented itself: the future of the Supreme Court."

Before the announcement of Rehnquist's death at 11:05 p.m. Saturday, cable newscasters were changing their coverage of Katrina. As a semblance of order was restored by the National Guard, tales of rescue emerged among the stories of suffering.

News executives typically search for central story lines through which to report major news events. Conventional wisdom among broadcasters is that without focus, the flow of images and facts presented by TV could become one long blur, and viewers will tune out.

Reporting about Katrina began with the breaking news of the storm. The focus then shifted to stories about the hurricane's aftermath, its victims' suffering and the government's slow response. Over the weekend, with the arrival of the National Guard, a new phase has begun.

"It's critically important for us to accurately reflect where the story has moved," said Sue Bunda, senior vice president for news at CNN. "We were the first to report the change in the Katrina story at the start of the weekend. ... It took on a very different tone, one of heroic efforts. We were looking to find those stories of rescue where they were happening and to help viewers make sense of the images they saw.

Just as networks and cable channels freely apportioned blame during the second phase of their coverage, so did they begin identifying heroes whose stories would humanize the story. Early Saturday, CNN found its first in Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the three-star general in command of the military in New Orleans.

Images of Honore arriving in New Orleans, leaping from a truck to order troops and New Orleans police officers to lower their rifles, which had been aimed at civilians, played in an endless loop.

"He's our hero," O'Brien said yesterday, echoing comments he made on-air when the images were first showed Saturday morning. "If I had to pick the moment when the story turned, it is when he arrived and told the troops to lower their `[expletive] guns.' That's the pivotal moment, and it was a moment of great symbolism for what it said about someone from the government finally helping the people of New Orleans."

TV ratings

Fox News Channel has been the top choice on cable, while NBC led the nightly news race during the first four nights of Hurricane Katrina coverage. (Because of the holiday weekend, ratings for Friday, Saturday and yesterday are not expected from Nielsen Media Research until tomorrow.

An average audience of 10.5 million viewers watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams each night Monday through Thursday. Runner-up ABC's World News Tonight drew an audience of 9.8 million, while CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer came in last with 7.6 million viewers.

On cable, Fox and CNN dominated the competition. In prime time (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) Monday through Thursday, Fox drew its largest audience of the year, with 4.9 million viewers a night, compared with CNN's 3.6 million.

Fox News Channel averaged 2.8 million viewers throughout the day -- compared with 2 million for CNN. (MSNBC averaged 736,000 viewers a day. Its prime-time audience peaked at 1.48 million.) -- David Zurawik

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