Boston manhunt brings out best, worst in TV news outlets Friday

ABC shines, CNN exposed as a channel struggling with identity issues

April 20, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

After spending 15 hours Friday locked on coverage of the manhunt in Boston, here are my picks for the highs, lows and deeper media stories of this remarkable day and night.

The best moment belonged to Diane Sawyer and ABC News for a phone interview Friday night with George Pizzuto, a next-door neighbor to the man who discovered a wounded and bloody Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lying under a tarp in a boat in his backyard and called police.

The interview started at 8:02 p.m., and was the first clear explanation of how the police found the 19-year-old bombing suspect in Watertown Friday night. It is an incredible story of the boat owner going out in his backyard after seeing a TV press conference that gave residents the green light to leave their homes.

When Pizzuto's neighbor looked at the boat, he noticed the tarp was ajar. So he got a ladder to go up and fix the tarp, only to see blood and then a body in the boat. He ran in the house and called police.

All of this was described with incredible clarity as Sawyer skillfully questioned Pizzuto and gave him enough room to tell his story on his terms. Sawyer knew she had a scoop and a winner, and in thanking Pizzuto she rightfully called him an "incredible reporter."

A couple of points: How old school is a telephone interview? They were doing them in the earliest days on TV news in the late 1940s. But it was riveting, revealing and told the story better first and better than any other media. Credit the producers who banged the phones at ABC to get the neighbors on the line. And credit Sawyer's superb interviewing skills.

The performance of ABC News ranged from solid to outstanding all day and night. Pierre Thomas was rock steady at the Justice Department straight through to his report on Dzhokhar's Miranda rights after the bombing suspect was captured. Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos reminded you of what an anchor was supposed to look and sound like during such a big TV event. None of the puffed-up, empty-headed self importance of NBC's Brian Williams here.

Outside of the empty suit at the anchor desk, though, NBC continued to deliver the kind of first-rated journalism I praised it for Wednesday when it resisted all the bad reporting from CNN, Fox News, the AP and Boston Globe saying an arrest had been made.

Pete Williams has rightfully gotten much of the credit for refusing to go with anything he couldn't confirm. But no matter how respected a veteran reporter like Pete Williams might be, a network doesn't stand firm against the kind of pressure NBC faced Wednesday in not reporting an arrest without strong news executives. Maybe that's one of the sub-stories here: NBC News regaining some journalistic mojo now that Steve Capus, the executive who gave us Chelsea Clinton as special correspondent, has been forced out as president.

There were plenty of bad moments Friday, but my pick for the worst comes courtesy of Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera.

Who else would be big enough gas bags to think their crackpot opinions would matter while a news story of this magnitude was playing out in Watertown and on-screen around the world? But there was Rivera on O'Reilly's top-rated show spinning a timeline of "radicalization" based on almost no facts.

Here's a bit of Rivera's armchair, act-like-you-know, psychobabble analysis of the 19-year-old: "I understand that his first year in college he was less friendly than he had been in high school, indicating that the radicalization, the Muslim fundamentalist ideals that the older brother, Tamerlan, was inculcating in the younger brother, are starting to take hold."

Whenever anyone on TV starts a sentence with "I understand," they are telling you they don't really know whether what they are about to say is true or not.

And O'Reilly comes back with, "The family is a fractured family, and that's another important element in the story. You got the father, who made a statement today, I think to the Associated Press, that it's a big frame-up and his kids didn't do it -- even as his kids are throwing hand grenades out the window. So, he's a loon."

Don't you love the level of discourse at this channel? And all of this is at 8:36 p.m. while most of the rest of TV is reporting the events leading to the conclusion of this 23-hour drama.

By the way, typical of the difference between ABC and Fox News on this story, the former had its own interview with the father. ABC's Bianna Golodryga, who is fluent in Russian, spoke with the father on the phone Friday.

My vote for the most intriguing backstage story of the week goes to CNN hands down -- and it wasn't all that backstage by Friday.

Since late December and the hiring of Jeff Zucker, it was obvious that CNN, once the channel that stood for news, was about to be re-invented. He wasted little time in hiring the likes of Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo to lead the channel into its new future.

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