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In Haiti, reporting from hell

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010; 9:53 AM

As journalists have parachuted into the misery that is Haiti, they have had to cope with both primitive conditions and communications difficulties.

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On Wednesday night, the television coverage was often reduced to little more than radio. An opening shot with Katie Couric froze, forcing CBS to switch to Harry Smith in New York. Brian Williams and Ann Curry were speaking by cellphone when their audio dropped out. But both networks managed to get the shots up later.

By Thursday, after a night in which many correspondents slept at the Port-au-Prince airport, the satellite technology and streaming video and Skype were working better but transportation was still limited. The reporters did the best they could. CNN's Sanjay Gupta aided a father whose 15-day-old daughter had received scalp lacerations.

How do you cover a country in ruins, with the death toll likely in the tens of thousands? The same way journalism always has when faced with mass disasters: by trying to humanize it. Thus, a New York Times headline says: " 'I Just Want My Wife's Corpse,' Survivor Pleads." Thus, Anderson Cooper focuses on a teenage boy whose sister was trapped in the rubble below. Fox's Steve Harrigan shows a woman, lying on the ground, who has lost her children. Thus, ABC's Robin Roberts searches for the 4-year-old girl Maya, adopted by an Iowa couple, and finds her, unharmed. Brian Williams shows a body on the street, a sight so uneventful that, he says, "people are simply walking by." Diane Sawyer, looking tired and pained, talks about her first day in hell.

Anchors in particular are sometimes derided as overpaid news readers. But in situations like this, they become field reporters, expected to fly off to the nearest disaster at a moment's notice. Could they cede that role to their staffs? Sure. But their very celebrity helps focus media attention on the crisis at hand. And we at home experience it through their emotion.

The American media, let's face it, usually pay very little attention to Haiti. Once in a blue moon, there's a coup or scandal or natural disaster that briefly puts the impoverished island nation in the spotlight, and then it is eclipsed. There is saturation coverage now -- all the network newscasts have expanded to an hour since Wednesday -- but that will soon fade.

Fox's Shepard Smith said: "It's hard enough to watch it from here, imagine watching it from there and smelling it. . . . This is a story where the pictures are going to look the same over the days ahead and we are all going to get bored with it because we always do, and then they'll all be truly alone, and then they'll really need us."

The L.A. Times has a good roundup:

"CNN's Anderson Cooper appeared to be the first television reporter to make it into the country, by hitching a ride Wednesday morning on a government helicopter from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The copter was nearly clipped by a plane as it approached Port-au-Prince. CBS' Kelly Cobiella reached Haiti shortly afterward, after driving through the night on a dangerous road from the Dominican Republic. . . .

"By Wednesday afternoon, NBC anchor Brian Williams and CBS anchor Katie Couric had managed to get to Port-au-Prince. ABC's Diane Sawyer was headed there from Afghanistan, where she had been reporting this week. They were backed up by dozens of colleagues, including Ann Curry for NBC, Robin Roberts for ABC and Jeff Glor for CBS. Fox News -- which had the first report from the Dominican Republic from correspondent Wendell Goler, who happened to be vacationing there -- dispatched Bill Hemmer, Steve Harrigan, Orlando Salinas and Jonathan Hunt to Haiti, and will send Greta Van Susteren. CNN deployed Susan Candiotti and eight other reporters to join Cooper and Ivan Watson, who also arrived there early Wednesday."

This seemed like a moment when the country is coming together in support of Haiti; George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have agreed to head up private fundraising. But within 24 hours, cable hosts were arguing about it. There was Pat Robertson's unbelievable suggestion that Haiti was being punished for a pact with the devil -- does he really have to pop up after every disaster to proclaim that it was God's will? (The Christian Broadcasting Network denies this, saying: "If you watch the entire video segment, Dr. Robertson's compassion for the people of Haiti is clear.")

And while bodies were still being pulled from the rubble, Rush Limbaugh said the following: "This will play right into Obama's hands -- humanitarian, compassionate. They'll use this to burnish their, uh, shall we say, credibility with the black community, both the light-skinned and black community in the country. That's why he couldn't wait to get out there; could not wait to get out there."


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