The Haiti Earthquake and Journalistic Choices

Yesterday, a tremendous earthquake struck Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this tragedy in the last 24 hours, praying for the victims and survivors, and hoping that the relief effort will be swift, compassionate and comprehensive. As I write this, the extent of death and destruction is not yet clear. But from what I’ve heard from news reports, the Haiti Earthquake of January 2010 appears to be one of the worst natural disasters of this century, possibly even more devastating than the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

I’ve also been observing how journalists, and especially broadcast journalists, have been covering this story. I first heard of the news on CNN. Wolf Blitzer broke the story during his “Situation Room” broadcast a few minutes after 5 p.m. My wife was watching CNN when the first announcement was made, and soon both of us were scanning the various news channels for updates. We checked out the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but we kept coming back to CNN, since, for at least the first few hours after the earthquake, CNN had the most comprehensive and detailed reports.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked by how little attention this story received on Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the first few hours after the earthquake hit. CNN was covering the story nonstop from when the news broke shortly after 5 p.m. Fox had a brief “Fox News Alert” around 5:30 during the Glenn Beck show, but didn’t provide any extensive coverage of the story. MSNBC broke the story a bit later than Fox with an update during “Hardball.” But again, MSNBC, like FNC, didn’t give much more than a brief mention about the tragedy unfolding a few hundred miles southeast of Florida.

CNN did what a news channel should do when a big story like this hits: interrupt regular programming, stick with the story and provide as much information as you can to viewers. Both Fox News Channel and MSNBC instead relied mostly on their pre-recorded talk programs. On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly interviewed Sarah Palin, who recently became a regular contributor to Fox News. The only mention of the Haiti Earthquake I noticed on FNC during the O’Reilly show was in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. Similarly, I didn’t hear Keith Olbermann mention the tragedy at all during his show on MSNBC. To her credit, Rachel Maddow did spend a significant part of her show covering the Haiti earthquake, but by then CNN had been covering it nonstop for nearly 4 hours.

I’m rather disappointed that the only cable news channel that stayed with this story from the beginning was CNN. I can understand why MSNBC might have a hard time covering breaking news, as they have the most limited news resources among the three major news channels. But one would think Fox News Channel could have broke away from their routine prime-time lineup to cover a story of this magnitude. While FNC might not have quite the same number of reporters in the field as does CNN, I think they could have pulled out the stops if they had wanted to do so. They certainly could afford to do so. Fox News Channel is watched by more people than CNN, and those higher ratings have helped swelled the bank accounts of Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation, which owns Fox (as well as the Wall Street Journal and many other media properties).

So why didn’t Fox News Channel, the broadcast news flagship of a company called the “News” Corporation, break away from their pre-recorded prime-time lineup of commentary shows to provide breaking news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti? One can only assume this reflects contrasting “gatekeeping” philosophies, about what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Last night on Fox News Channel, Sarah Palin’s debut as an FNC contributor was news. Last night on CNN, the earthquake in Haiti was news. With all due respect to Ms. Palin, I think CNN made the better journalistic choice.

And that’s the way it was… Remembering Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite died last night at the age of 92. Or should I say, he was 92 and a half. In my opinion, anyone who lives to be in their nineties has earned the right to keep track of age in half-years. While it’s sad to see him go, I’m glad he lived to a ripe old age.

Much has already been written about Walter Cronkite. Of course, many have noted that he was an outstanding news reporter and news anchor. His work at CBS News greatly contributed to the tradition of excellence established by Edward R. Murrow. Cronkite will long be remembered for his even-handed delivery of the news of President Kennedy’s death in 1963, and his almost giddy reaction to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. And who can forget President Johnson’s reaction to Cronkite’s 1967 broadcast on the Tet offensive in which Walter concluded the Vietnam War was essentially a lost cause: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And that’s the way it was; public opinion on Vietnam deteriorated in the years to follow.

I would like to share just a few things about Walter Cronkite from my own perspective, a few tidbits that are less well known, or at least, not widely reported or commented on.

You probably knew that Walter Cronkite sported a mustache. But you might not know that he was one of the first news anchors to have facial hair, and to this day, he remains one of the few men in national TV news to have proudly worn whiskers. NBC news legend Lowell Thomas had a mustache, but Thomas is more associated with radio news (although his radio newscast was simulcast on some early television stations in the 1940s). And H.R. Baukhage, one of the first TV news anchors at ABC (1948-51) appears to have a faint mustache in some of the available photos from that era. But if you don’t count Thomas (who really was a radio guy) or Baukhage (who really was not well known) Walter Cronkite was the first nationally-famous network news anchor to have facial hair. All of the notable anchors of network television news before Cronkite were clean-shaven, including John Cameron Swayzee, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley at NBC, Douglas Edwards at CBS (whom Cronkite replaced in 1962) and John Charles Daly (the first truly memorable anchor at ABC). And of the network TV news anchors since Cronkite, only Max Robinson at ABC comes to mind as having a mustache. Of course, Wolf Blitzer at CNN wears a nicely trimmed set of whiskers, but I’m talking here about national news anchors at the major broadcast networks. In any case, Walter Cronkite remains one of the few men in national TV news to have facial hair.

I also remember Walter Cronkite for his public speaking skill. Beyond his contributions to broadcast journalism, Cronkite should also be noted as someone who clearly understood the importance of speech communication, and vividly demonstrated effective public speaking techniques. His mastery of public speaking was evident in a video he was featured in called “Presentation Excellence.” I remember this video quite well because I used it frequently in the late 1980s when I regularly taught public speaking at William Jewell College. Although it may seem a bit dated now, the advice contained in this video is quite good, and still remains one of the better videos one can use in an introductory public speaking course. One particularly notable section of the video is Cronkite’s analysis of Barbara Jordan’s speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention (which many rhetorical scholars believe was among the most important speeches of the 20th century). I don’t believe this video is still available, but perhaps CBS will consider releasing an updated version (the original 1984 video was jointly produced by CBS and Fox).

One more thing about Walter Cronkite that I will always remember: the location of the school named after him. That’s because the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication is at Arizona State University, the first school that hired me as an adjunct instructor after I completed my master’s degree. In fact, the journalism department at ASU was just being named after Walter Cronkite and elevated to school status in 1984, the year I left Arizona State for a tenure-track post at William Jewell College. If things had worked out a little differently in my career, I might be teaching at ASU today. I still know a few of the long-time faculty members there, including Don Godfrey, always a friendly face when I regularly see him at the annual convention of the Broadcast Education Association. The Walter Cronkite School has become one of the best broadcast journalism schools in the country, rivaling the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State. And certainly one reason for the excellence of the Walter Cronkite School was the active involvement by Walter Cronkite himself in the early years of the school. Cronkite was, after all, a healthy and vibrant man when he was forced to retire from CBS in 1981 at the age of 65. Many people believe he could have gone on to anchor many more years had he been given the chance. But rather than retire to a life of leisure, Cronkite kept active in his golden years, and his imprint on the Cronkite School remains to this day a testament to his exceptional talent.

Obama was here

So today was the big day at West Chester University. I’ve never seen such excitement on this campus! I thought it would be big, but I never imagined it would be this big. Over 2,200 wildly animated people crowded into Hollinger Field House to watch Chris Matthews interview Barack Obama on MSNBC’s “Hardball College Tour.”

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of Barack Obama, and I’ve still not decided who will get my vote.  It’s a long way to Election Day, and a lot can happen in the next few months.  But I have to admit Obama made a rather positive impression on me at this event. He really is eloquent, and he seems like a very sincere and passionate person.  I’m not sure what kind of President he would be, but if he does win the election, I think he could bring some positive changes to Washington.  

I’d like to hear from Hillary in person before the primary vote.  I was impressed with Chelsea Clinton when she visited our campus last week.  I know there are those who dislike Hillary, but I think America might benefit from a woman President.  And I thought it was telling when Chelsea she said she thought her mom would make a better president than her dad was.

And although I’m not particularly impressed with John McCain, I will probably watch how he does when he appears with Chris Matthews on the next stop of Hardball’s College Tour (April 15 at Villanova University). It would be interesting to see if the Villanova crowd gets as excited as the one here at West Chester.

Below are a few pictures of the event.  You can see more photos on my web gallery.

Obama is coming to town

It’s official.  Barack Obama will be coming to West Chester University this Wednesday afternoon. But it’s not for a stump speech or an open discussion.  No, Obama will be on a TV show that is being hosted on campus.  And not everyone can get in; you need to get a ticket if you want to see the show.

So this afternoon, I got a ticket. Here’s a picture of the ticket itself.  I found the wording interesting: “West Chester University of Pennsylvania presents ‘Hardball with Chris Matthews’ 2008 College Tour with Special Guest Senator Barack Obama.”  I wonder how I should interpret the statement that WCU “presents” this event.  Should I take this to mean that WCU is sponsoring this event? Or does it mean that MSNBC (the cable channel that airs Hardball) is just using WCU as a remote venue for the program?  Is it costing WCU something in order to bring this show to town?

One thing this event IS costing us is the use of a parking lot for two days.  Tomorrow and Wednesday, the parking lot next to Hollinger Field House will be closed.  This is a pretty big lot, and it means that a lot more people will be trolling the remaining parking lots looking for a spot to park their wheels.  At least the Sharpless Street garage has announced that they are providing free parking during the lot closure.

When I picked up my ticket, I was told that “no backpacks will be allowed,” and I’ll need to present my WCU ID card along with the ticket to get in.  They would only give me one ticket, so I couldn’t bring my wife along.  Oh well. I guess she’ll have to watch it on TV like everyone else.

So if you’re watching MSNBC Wednesday afternoon, look for me in the crowd.  Or not.

Chelsea Clinton visits West Chester University

So this afternoon, Chelsea Clinton visited our campus. I expected there would be a crowd, but didn’t expect this big of a crowd. The Sykes Union television lounge was filled to capacity, and the overflow crowd extended upstairs to the second floor. I had to struggle to get close enough to take this picture!
5CBXg.MPVHqVGB3MAM.jpgAs for her comments, I didn’t really hear anything out of the ordinary. She was stumping for her mom, and the crowd was primarily routing for her. She spent most of the time responding to questions, and there were plenty of them. I thought she handled one question about the Bush presidency particularly well when she said that 2008 really should have been the last year of a Gore administration. Chelsea spoke with grace and dignity, although sometimes she was a bit difficult to hear in the crowded environment.

Many people were wearing the Hillary stickers they were giving out. I might have worn a button if they were offering them, but I guess political buttons are a thing of the past. Maybe I’m old-fashioned (or just plain old) but I’d take a button over a sticker any day. Stickers are just so…disposable. Not to mention sticky.

There were also quite a few students holding up “McCain for President” posters, which you can see in the picture. I didn’t see them giving out buttons either. The McCain supporters were persistent but reasonably polite, and they didn’t seem to faze Chelsea.

I did see a lot of video cameras documenting Chelsea’s appearance, and quite a few big guys that looked like Secret Service types.

Anyway, one nice thing about the extended nomination process for the Democratic candidate is that it’s making Pennsylvania’s primary an interesting one. And it’s great to see so many students interested in the political process.

By the way, I hear Barack Obama will be coming to campus next Wednesday. MSNBC plans to bring Chris Matthews and his “Hardball College Tour” to West Chester University for a live broadcasts at 5, with repeats at 7 and 11 that evening. I suspect the crowd for Obama next week will be even bigger than the one for Chelsea today.

College Media Convention – Day 2

Today was a full day for me at the College Media Convention. I spent most of the day in sessions related to software included in the new version of Adobe’s Creative Suite. I began by attending a session on one of the components of the suite I use the least: Adobe Illustrator. This vector graphics application has gone through a number of iterations during its history, and in earlier versions of the Creative Suite, Illustrator seemed to be one of the least integrated. The latest version appears to correct that issue, as Illustrator has become an integral part of Adobe’s Creative Suite 3.

Next was today’s plenary session. Unlike yesterday’s keynote speaker, today’s was rather ho-hum. You know you’re in trouble when a speaker spends the first five minutes asking the audience to “raise their hands if the think this will happen“ and ”raise their hands if they think that will happen.“ One or at most two questions like that are OK, but it gets old quick. Among other things, Sam Feist, CNN’s Political Director, spent a lot time talking about how important it was to be apolitical as a journalist. This from someone who holds the title ”Political Director“ seemed a bit odd. At times he sounded more like a public relations professional than a journalist, spending a lot of time extolling the virtues of CNN’s news policies. And although he tried hard to hide his political inclinations, he didn’t try hard to hide his distaste for Fox News Channel. I didn’t find myself disagreeing with most of Sam’s points, but I did find myself getting rather tired of his ”old school“ views of objectivity. One student tried to pin him down on whether objectivity was still possible today, a question he conveniently spun toward a critique of FNC. I really wasn’t surprised at Sam’s talk, as he works for one of the biggest names in the business. He has reason to play it safe and stick to the ”middle of the road.“ But is it any wonder why Fox, despite its obvious bias, is getting a lot better ”rating point per dollar“ return than CNN? When it comes right down to it, I think most news consumers today appreciate journalists who embrace their bias rather than try to hide it behind the increasingly thin curtain of ”objectivity.“ Even I would rather spend an hour watching Bill O’Reilly say patently stupid things than spend an hour in the ”Situation Room.“ Neither one is very good journalism, but at least the first is somewhat entertaining at times.

The rest of the day I spent attending sessions on the other components of the Creative Suite, including sessions on Flash video, Photoshop, In Design and Acrobat. I also had time to take in a session on blogging, which was quite interesting. I wish I could get more of my students at The Quad interested in blogging. Maybe someday.

After a full day of sessions, I took a group of editors from The Quad out to a place called ”The Reef“ for dinner. Although it looked a little iffy at first, it turned out to be a nice place to kick back and talk. The food was pretty good, and it was plentiful. And it gave me a chance to reconnect with some of my best students. Being on sabbatical, I kinda miss being around students, so it was nice to have the chance to interact with them again. What can I say? I guess I just like being around college kids.