Monday, February 03, 2003

They Doodle On the News, You Decide

Generally the media coverage of the Columbia disaster on Saturday was just OK. I observed no critical gaffes or errors, but in general the reporters and anchorpersons added very little value to the events transpiring. The circumstances of the crash didn’t allow for much breaking news coverage, which forced the on-air talent to fill vast amounts of time with re-stating the few known facts and interviewing various technical experts, who generally had the same opinions: It wasn’t terrorism, we don’t know what caused it, but we’ll find out and hopefully get the Space Shuttle program going again shortly.

From my observations, the media low point on Saturday had to be anchorman Miles O’Brien’s performance on CNN. During the period of live coverage on Saturday morning, CNN, like most of the networks, was running a continuous loop of the video footage of the little shiny, smoke streaming blip that was Columbia, streaking across a neutral blue background created by the clear Texas sky. During what must have been the second uninterrupted hour of playing this video over and over, in an apparent attempt to use his media savvy skills to help us dissect the image, Miles booted up the Telestrator, and circled the shiny blip streaming smoke at the center of the screen, saying something to the effect of “here it is!” or “this is the Columbia!”

Oh really Miles, that’s what you’ve been talking about ceaselessly since I tuned in and that’s what the news crawl text at the bottom of the screen has been referring to? That smoking, fiery, disintegrating blip IS the Columbia? The only thing on the screen at that time, is also what you’ve been exclusively talking about for hours? Got it, thanks.

Now I realize many people had not been watching this tape all morning and perhaps they were just hearing the news. But does Miles O’Brien really think there is a single person watching CNN who didn’t immediately make the connection of what was being said and what was being shown? But I guess Mr. O’Brien knows his business. From reading his biography and seeing the award winning history of his reportage, I have to conclude that aiming at and hitting the lowest of the lowest common denominator of human intelligence is what local Emmy’s are made of.

And it went on. As the video showed Columbia starting to disintegrate and shed pieces, creating smaller blips and smoke contrails, Miles then told us to “look at the contrails!” and then he proceeded to illustrate them by drawing lines over the top of the contrails from the video. An interesting analytical technique, substituting the actual image for crooked, cartoonish doodling. If it were up to him, perhaps the only record we’d have of the flag planting at Iwo Jima would be a crudely drawn caricature (with Miles asking the soldiers, “so, do you guys have any hobbies I could work in here?”)

Being into my second eye roll and audible scoff (which is one more than I usually allow for CNN broadcasts) I decided to move on to alternate information sources. Returning later in the day I happened upon Miles again, this time interviewing an eye witness from Texas who saw the whole fiery tragedy transpire in the sky above his town (how he managed to spot this event without the help of Miles O’Brien’s electric pen, I have no idea). But in relaying that he heard the boom and saw the blip in the sky, the witness also casually mentioned there was an airplane in the vicinity as he looked up.

Perhaps smelling another statuette on his mantle piece, Miles O’Brien brought the entire CNN broadcast to a halt. He shouted something on the nature of “wait a minute, wait a minute!” then yelled in a panicked tone for the studio and control room to give him silence while he talked to the witness. He reiterated the question, clearly alarmed and ready to run with it: “You’re telling me you saw a plane near the space shuttle!”.

Apparently Miles wasn’t listening to his own broadcast, as by this time the whole world knew that Columbia was 200,000 feet up when the accident occurred, much higher than any planes are able to fly. Furthermore, it’s generally acknowledged that eye witness accounts to any traumatic event are notoriously unreliable. Those that are phoned in to media sources during breaking coverage are even worse, many of them outright frauds (do some Googling on Howard Stern and the OJ Bronco chase for details). Yet these facts are apparently news to Miles O’Brien as he breathlessly pursued this dead end lead.

The witness confirmed that he indeed saw what he thought was a commercial plane. There was then some more back and forth that went no where, despite Miles’s attempts to add some substance to this claim. Finally, someone from the control room got to him, over his earpiece. I assume it was either a director from CNN or perhaps someone from the Emmy committee letting him know his statue was already in the mail. Whatever the reason, the conversation was ended, CNN went to a commercial, and mercifully, the “plane in the sky” story line was not mentioned again upon their return.

Sadly Miles O’Brien was still there. I guess we can only hope that if war does break out in Iraq, Judy Woodruff is manning the helm. (Yes, that’s how bad Miles O’Brien is, I’m now hoping that vital news and information will be filtered through the clogged sieve that is Judy Woodruff).

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