Energy mostly lacking on TV

Media Coverage

White House Indictment


Cable TV went wall-to-wall with its coverage, and the networks interrupted soap operas and talk shows three times yesterday to offer live reports on the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.

But for all the hours of coverage on all the channels and networks, there was nothing more striking than the near absence of analysts claiming to have received inside information from "sources" - or, worse, "unnamed sources."

In reporting the story of how Libby was facing criminal charges amid allegations that he attempted to manipulate the reporter-source relationship for political gain, it seemed as if television news might have learned a lesson about its own excesses - if only for a day.

Otherwise, all the networks and cable channels struggled unsuccessfully throughout the day to find a compelling narrative, arresting image or commanding voice that could tell the tale of what the CIA leak and indictment of Libby meant.

There was not much to work with in terms of visuals. The live picture that dominated morning coverage on cable channels was that of the front of the courthouse in which the indictments would be announced. It is hard to think of a flatter or more static image.

There were few if any sudden twists or unexpected turns in the day's events. The indictment of Libby and the non-indictment of Karl Rove, senior adviser and deputy chief of staff for President Bush, went almost exactly as predicted in several major morning newspapers and Web sites.

When the story unfolds more or less as anticipated, TV's biggest advantage over its media competitors, the ability to go live, is greatly diminished. Instead of being the first teller of the news, TV is merely confirming what print or Internet voices have predicted.

The harder television tried to energize its coverage yesterday, generally, the worse things got.

CNN, which has improved drastically in reporting big stories during the past year under news President Jonathan Klein, lost its way in a sea of talking heads and overproduction. The cable channel built its coverage around the star, Wolf Blitzer, and set of its new signature series, The Situation Room. Blitzer was his usual solid self, but the technical production was hard to watch.

One of the few breaking-news moments of the day came shortly after 2 p.m. when special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald held a news conference. But instead of giving viewers a full-screen live shot of Fitzgerald as he spoke, CNN reduced his image until it was one of five on-screen elements competing for attention.

Sharing the screen with him was a giant photograph of husband and wife Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame, the targets of the Libby leak, sitting in a convertible car looking like Hollywood stars. Every few seconds, it alternated with a photograph of Libby on crutches walking to his car.

The only solution for those viewers trying to follow Fitzgerald was to change channels. MSNBC, at least, offered a full-screen take of the man who presumably had more answers than anyone else who was talking yesterday.

But the news of the way television covered Fitzgerald, Libby and the Bush administration yesterday was found in what the anchors, reporters and TV analysts did not say - as, for once, they shied away from the ubiquitous and gratuitous use of "sources."

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