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News sources scurry to get reporters to Haiti to cover earthquake's aftermath

By Paul Farhi
Friday, January 15, 2010; C03

Despite widespread devastation and calamitous conditions, American journalists have poured into Port-au-Prince, some arriving mere hours after Tuesday's earthquake struck Haiti's capital city.

In scenes reminiscent of the Asian tsunami of 2004, American TV networks began broadcasting footage of the catastrophe by late afternoon on Wednesday, providing harrowing images of collapsed buildings and dazed and injured people.

Although TV news often shies away from frank images of the dead, there has been little restraint this time. CNN on Wednesday night carried footage from a wrecked clinic; the camera panned from a pile of 15 bodies lying in its doorway to a lifeless infant, its limbs and head protruding from beneath a filthy sheet. Several networks warned viewers before showing the most graphic pictures.

CNN's Anderson Cooper was the first American TV anchor on the scene Wednesday. He left New York Tuesday night, flew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and then hitched a ride on a relief helicopter heading across the island of Hispaniola to Port-au-Prince. He was able to report only over a satellite phone initially, but was on the air a few hours later with the arrival of cameras and transmission equipment from Miami.

A reporter in tears

CBS anchor Katie Couric soon followed via a chartered plane; a second wave of CBS journalists came in overland from Santo Domingo, sleeping overnight at the border. Fox News correspondent Steve Harrigan followed Cooper's lead; he talked his way onto a plane bringing medical supplies from Santo Domingo.

Harrigan was in the city Thursday morning and recorded one of the many unspeakably tragic scenes unfolding there: a woman wailing hysterically over the deaths of four of her children in a collapsed building. Speaking of the woman on the air later in the day, Harrigan, a veteran war correspondent, broke down in tears and had to stop reporting.

ABC, CBS and NBC expanded their half-hour nightly newscasts on Wednesday and Thursday to a full hour to report on developments in Haiti. ABC also preempted its prime-time schedule for a one-hour special Thursday night hosted by Diane Sawyer, who flew from Afghanistan to Haiti.

The absence of electricity, food or shelter, as well as potential disease and security problems, have made covering the story especially difficult. Unlike the tsunami, which affected a wide area, the Haitian quake leveled a smaller, relatively isolated city, said Tony Maddox, CNN International's executive vice president. If the airport doesn't remain open, there will be few ways to ship equipment in, he said.

Nevertheless, by Thursday, CNN had 44 correspondents, producers and technicians covering the story in Port-au-Prince, with six more coming in Friday. Fox News had about 25 people on the ground, said John Stack, Fox News's vice president of newsgathering. Feeding, supplying, housing, protecting and resupplying crews "is like a military operation," he said.

Newer technology helps

Technology has made the job of covering remote disasters somewhat easier, Maddox said. Some TV reporters carried laptop-size satellite transmitters called BGANs, which enabled them to send near broadcast-quality video from the streets. But some reporters had to improvise, using car batteries to power cameras and microphones.

While CNN and Fox News were able to secure hotel rooms outside the city for their crews, others had to make do. "Today" show anchor Ann Curry slept on a baggage cart at the Port-au-Prince airport Wednesday while NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and "Today" weatherman Al Roker shared a tent. On Thursday, Roker did his usual morning weather report while standing incongruously at the airport.

"I think it's the most inaccessible story I've ever experienced, and I've been to several dark corners of this world," said Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, who arrived in Haiti Thursday morning. "Haiti's a tough place on a good day. But when you see the sheer enormity of this, it will knock your knees. There is devastation on every street. It has been awful for these people."

The only good news to report, Hemmer said, was that the airport regained electricity via generators on Thursday, making night landings of relief planes feasible.

National Public Radio in Washington said its first correspondent, Carrie Kahn, arrived in Haiti on Wednesday afternoon. A second reporter and producer arrived on Thursday, with a third reporter and photojournalist expected to enter the city on Friday.

The Washington Post had three reporters in Haiti by Thursday and two photographers, with several more arriving by Friday, said Elizabeth Spayd, a Post managing editor.

The logistical uncertainties were brought home on Thursday when the airport was temporarily closed again. The shutdown forced Fox News host Greta Van Susteren to scrap plans to broadcast from Haiti. Instead, her show originated from Miami.

On Wednesday night, Fox News's popular opinion hosts went with their regularly scheduled subjects, all but ignoring the Haiti story -- a fact gleefully noted by its rival MSNBC in a press release. Glenn Beck's program featured an hour-long interview with Sarah Palin, for example, while Bill O'Reilly's "O'Reilly Factor" featured a discussion about Comedy Central host Jon Stewart. But Fox's Stack noted that the network updated the Haiti story in brief cut-in segments during the shows. "Our viewers had all the news that was available at the time," he said.

On Thursday, Beck devoted his program to a discussion of character issues, while O'Reilly and prime-time host Sean Hannity added more discussion of Haiti.

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