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Copyright © 2005, The New York Times Company

Reporting Live From Hell: TV Scrambles for Glory

Published: January 10, 2005

In an interview by satellite phone from Sri Lanka late last week, Mr. Rather spoke of what he described as his contradictory emotions: revulsion and grief at the loss of tens of thousands of lives, coupled with the elation that he was among those observers entrusted to transmit such information home.

"It's very difficult, perhaps impossible, from the outside to understand the conflicting undertows that go through you as a journalist," Mr. Rather said. "Flying out, I'm saying to myself, 'They're talking about death tolls that are practically impossible to imagine.' At the same time, you're saying to yourself, 'What a story.' "

By JACQUES STEINBERG

Television news executives have long viewed natural disasters as offering a rich backdrop against which to showcase the skills of their top talent and to burnish their résumés.

But the parade of broadcast journalists - the well known and the up and coming - that has been dispatched to South Asia during the last two weeks to cover the aftermath of the tsunami represents more than an extraordinary response to an unfathomable catastrophe halfway around the world. The tsunami also struck at a critically important moment in the careers of three star anchors - Brian Williams of NBC, Dan Rather of CBS and Anderson Cooper of CNN - who each traveled to the region to lead hours of coverage last week.

The tsunami also hit at a moment of transition and high competitiveness for those anchors' respective news organizations, and each sought to seize the story to gain strategic advantage while gaining viewers.

Though none of the anchors were sent over immediately after the disaster - the television world, like the world in general, was slow to grasp the enormity of the loss - the networks were soon jousting with one other to draw attention to their respective coverage. In press releases and telephone calls to reporters who cover the television industry, network executives crowed about which anchor was first where, whether it was the first evening news anchor on the ground in Asia (a matter of some dispute, at least initially) or the first to interview Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for a morning program (Diane Sawyer of ABC's "Good Morning America").

In mounting their public-relations campaigns, however quietly, the networks were mindful that whatever the drop in network television viewership in recent years, people tend to flock back at times of crisis. And this story, like the Sept. 11 attacks or the capture of Saddam Hussein, offered that rare chance to try to recapture their interest.

"The horrible images in this story remind you that there is no glee we take that this story happened," Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, said. "But given all the interest, it reminds us of the awful responsibility we have to cover it. We would be letting people down if we didn't get all the places we needed to get."

For Mr. Williams, 45, who broadcast "NBC Nightly News" live for four nights last week from Asia - including Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where casualties were the highest - the assignment presented a dramatic chance to step out of the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Tom Brokaw. Mr. Brokaw, 64, stepped down as anchor of the top-rated evening news program on Dec. 1, less than a month before the storm hit.

For CNN, which named Jonathan Klein the president of its domestic network on Nov. 22, the disaster in Asia was a chance to try out a new game plan. As evidenced by CNN's coverage during the last week, that plan features Mr. Cooper, 37, as the lead anchor and emphasizes rich reporting over some of the occasionally shrill political talk shows that were becoming a trademark of CNN, which has been trounced by Fox News in the ratings for three years running.

And for Mr. Rather, 73, who scrambled over hundreds of miles in several affected countries last week, some in a Navy helicopter dispatched from an aircraft carrier, the assignment came at what has been an excruciating personal and professional time. Within days CBS is expected to release an independent panel's investigation of a broadcast segment, anchored before the presidential election by Mr. Rather, that raised questions about the National Guard service of President Bush using documents that the network later determined to be unsubstantiated. Mr. Rather later announced that he would step down as anchor of "The CBS Evening News" after 24 years on March 9.

It was only natural that Mr. Rather, a fiercely competitive journalist who does not want the National Guard story to be his epitaph, would lobby his bosses relentlessly to send him to Asia.

In an interview by satellite phone from Sri Lanka late last week, Mr. Rather spoke of what he described as his contradictory emotions: revulsion and grief at the loss of tens of thousands of lives, coupled with the elation that he was among those observers entrusted to transmit such information home.

"It's very difficult, perhaps impossible, from the outside to understand the conflicting undertows that go through you as a journalist," Mr. Rather said. "Flying out, I'm saying to myself, 'They're talking about death tolls that are practically impossible to imagine.' At the same time, you're saying to yourself, 'What a story.' "

"There is no place else I'd want to be," he added. "I literally say a prayer of thanks every day in order to have this work. A story like this is why you get in the business."

Mr. Rather's comments were echoed by Mr. Williams, who called from a taxi en route from Kennedy International Airport less than four hours before he was to anchor the Friday installment of "Nightly News." He had been host of the same program from Singapore the day before.

"This is what we get paid to do," he said. "And sadly, greatness in our business, in journalism, so often comes following great misfortune for others."

Mr. Williams's reminder that television news is indeed a business underscored that the stakes are especially high for the network news divisions and cable networks, each of which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases several million, to cover the aftermath of the tsunami.

Often, the networks cast their campaigns to cover the story in military terms.

CNN, which has experienced a big increase in ratings during the last two weeks as compared with last year, headlined its press release, "CNN Demonstrates Global Strength With Tsunami Coverage." It then detailed how a staff of 80 reporters, camera operators, satellite technicians and others had been mobilized in the area.

Last Monday NBC was so eager to publicize Mr. Williams's arrival that it described him in its headline as the "first network evening news anchor to travel to Southeast Asia" to report on the tsunami.

As it turned out, Mr. Rather, who arrived in Bangkok late Friday, had beaten Mr. Williams by more than a day.

Whether the efforts by the networks to mobilize last week paid off in attracting more viewers was not immediately clear.

Ratings for last week's network evening newscasts will not be made available by Nielsen Media Research until tomorrow. In the week immediately after the tsunami, the viewership of NBC's and CBS's evening newscasts was lower, on average, than the same week a year ago; only ABC was up.

In the second week after the disaster, with Mr. Rather and Mr. Williams in Asia, Peter Jennings, the longtime anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," was stuck at his anchor desk in New York, sidelined by a respiratory ailment. For Mr. Jennings - and for ABC, which had spent tens of thousands of dollars in recent weeks on a promotional campaign intended partly to emphasize his experience as a foreign correspondent - the situation was agonizing.

"He wanted to go more than I can articulate," Paul Slavin, senior vice president of ABC News. said.

In Mr. Jennings's absence, Mr. Slavin and other ABC executives worked aggressively to highlight the contributions of Ms. Sawyer in particular; she had arrived in the region New Year's weekend and proceeded to sleep only intermittently, as she was the co-host of "Good Morning America" and filed reports to Mr. Jennings's program. One of the more poignant segments was one in which she showed the crew aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, stationed in the Indian Ocean, baking extra bread for tsunami survivors.

Fox News sent none of its anchors - it kept its main host, Shepard Smith, in New York - but by choice, rather than because of circumstance. Of the three main broadcast networks and two leading cable news networks, it had perhaps the leanest operation, with a staff of about 25 in Asia.

"I think there's a knee-jerk reaction to get the star there," William Shine, vice president for production at Fox News, said. "We try to do things differently here."

Fox did not appear especially hurt in the ratings by its decision. During prime time, for the 10 nights ending on Wednesday, it drew an average of 1.5 million viewers , an increase of about 17 percent over the same period last year, according to Nielsen.

But CNN, though a distant second to Fox, improved far more, drawing an average of about 935,000 viewers a night, an increase of 64 percent, according to Nielsen.

Among the prime reasons, CNN executives suggested, was the heightened visibility of Mr. Cooper, a former ABC correspondent. Though he typically is the host of a one-hour prime-time program called "Anderson Cooper 360°," Mr. Cooper was also the anchor for several additional hours live each night last week from Sri Lanka.

In a telephone interview from the region last week, Mr. Cooper said he spent most of his time visiting devastated seaside villages along the country's west coast, joined by a camera crew, but also shooting digital video images himself. In one such segment, Mr. Cooper, through his own pictures and words, told of a 13-year-old boy who had lost a brother and sister.

"Alone on a beach, a sad little boy hurt by the water beats on a drum, the pain in his heart too deep to express," Mr. Cooper said in his narration.

In an interview, Mr. Williams, the father of a 16-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son, said bearing witness to seemingly endless scenes of abandoned children made it especially difficult for him to do his job at times.

For Mr. Rather, it appeared as recently as New Year's weekend that his role on behalf of CBS might have been far more limited than that of his competitors. He had traveled to Asia as a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," the program on which his National Guard segment had run, with a commitment to do a report from the Abraham Lincoln, but no promise that he would be the anchor for his news program.

But by last Monday, as the enormity of the tragedy came into sharper focus, along with the outpouring of financial contributions from around the world, Mr. Rather's role grew. He wound up being the co-anchor of the "Evening News" (his co-anchor was John Roberts) from around the region for four nights, and was scheduled to return to New York over the weekend.

Before he left, Mr. Rather was asked in an interview if he had reflected while in Asia on the dwindling number of days he has in the anchor chair, after which he will become a correspondent for "60 Minutes."

"I can truthfully say I haven't thought about the change in my career since I've been out here," he said. "Once in a while, when I hook up with one of our veteran cameramen from overseas, he'll say something quietly, like 'I hope things go well.' "

"This certainly puts things in perspective," he added.

© Copyright  The New York Times Company


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