I left for Mexico a few days after the disastrous earthquake struck Haiti. Even a few days later Canadian networks were having a difficult time getting to Port-au-Prince and the surrounding towns that were devastated. The major U.S. networks were not faring much better. It seemed all the network reporting was coming from the airport, reporters traveling through the Dominican Republic on their way to Haiti or through Haitians in Canada and the U.S. who were raising awareness and money or trying to reach loved ones. The Governor General’s tears were getting as much coverage as the disaster.
There was one major exception. Somehow, CNN managed to get an army of reporters, camera operators and producers on the ground. Better still they were not stranded at the airport, they were trolling the streets for stories and not so amazingly in a scene of utter devastation, they were finding great stories.
I believe it is fair to say that CNN brought the Haitian disaster to the world. The great outpouring of sympathy, donations and demand that something be done to help can be directly attributed in large part to the marvelous work of CNN.
I have been a critic of CNN in the past. I was dismayed by their recent gaffs like the coverage of the balloon boy and the U.S. Coast Guard war game on September 11th. I was upset by their moving towards sensationalism rather than good story telling. Their drop in viewership seemed to be pushing them in all the wrong directions But let’s face it, when there is a real story, the bigger the better, nobody can touch the speed and resourcefulness that CNN throws at their coverage.
To be fair there has been some whining and complaining about the supposedly “over the top” coverage of Anderson Cooper. Night after night he stood somewhere in Port-au-Prince in his designer t-shirts railing at the authorities lack of ability to get their act together. Supplies piled up while people starved. Medicine was not getting through. Dr. Sanjay Gupta was treating people at makeshift hospitals in the street while international doctors were being held back from treating those who needed help.
Folks, you can’t have it both ways. For years I have heard complaints about journalists standing on the sidelines as “objective” observers. The question was always asked: how can you be there reporting and shooting and not lend a hand? How can you show so little emotion when you see horrible things happening all around you?
Anderson Cooper did get involved. He took on the U.S. relief effort. He questioned the whereabouts of the Haitian government. He asked whether the right supplies were being sent and why, if the supplies were what was needed, they were not getting to the people. It was activist journalism of the best kind in my estimation. It was dramatic and more important it told the story of what was really happening on the ground. Sure CNN could have focused on the few people being rescued. They would have been feel good stories. CNN could also have focused on the incredible disaster. That would have provided what we TV people call great pictures. They did do some of that. But they did the harder work. They produced story after story of the failure of the relief effort. They took on their own government failures while showing how a team of Israelis bypassed the red tape by just coming into Haiti, and by ignoring the problems. The Israelis were succeeding where the huge U.S. effort was failing. I could go on with example after example not the least of which is Dr. Gupta practicing emergency medicine on his own in the streets of Port-au-Prince. The CNN effort was as monumental as it was edifying. And best of all it pushed all the other TV networks into doing better work then they would have. CNN set the standard by which all TV coverage of Haiti would and should be judged.
When this is all over and CNN wins accolades and awards for their Haiti coverage I hope the debates will begin in newsrooms and J-schools about the sort of activist journalism practiced by Anderson Cooper and his colleagues. I believe the CNN coverage will begin to force journalists to draw new lines and guidelines. I think all of journalism be better for the coming debate. When all is said and done all journalists will look back at Haiti as a turning point. From now on will we expect more from the reporters on the ground? I sure hope so. In the meantime I want to thank CNN, Anderson Cooper, Sanjay Gupta and their colleagues for their hard work and determination in bringing the Haiti story to the world. They have made an old journalist proud of the profession he once worked in.
Oh, and by the way…I was away so I don’t know if CTV even made it to Haiti. Since I have returned I have seen four Haiti stories on CTV…three were done out of Washington and one out of Ottawa using U.S. network footage. Paul Workman is an excellent reporter. He is totally wasted at CTV where he gets to report 3,000 miles from the story he is supposedly covering.