Japan's NHK vs. CNN: Oceans Apart

While watching coverage of the earthquake in Japan, quickly followed by allied action in Libya, I was struck by the stylistic differences between U.S. cable nets and NHK, Japan’s influential news network.  (A live stream of NHK with English translation is available here.)

Compared to U.S. cable net frothing at the mouth, keeping their audiences in a permanent state of excitation, NHK coverage was cool, impassive.  At the time I attributed this to the translation which almost always strips out the emotion.

Apparently not.  Here’s a  fascinating story in the Washington Post, “In Japan, disaster coverage is measured, not breathless” - a lens into NHK’s  coverage of the earthquake and their extraordinary preparation for the worst case scenario event.

Just a few excerpts: “For the past two weeks, NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, has covered a triple disaster, appraising the damage with the help of 14 helicopters, 67 broadcasting vans and virtually no adjectives.  Its anchors do not use certain words that might make a catastrophe feel like a catastrophe. ‘Massive’ is prohibited.  Same with ’severe.’….NHK has no star personalities, and in fact, it doesn’t want them….”  (The article also covers NHK’s extraordinary preparation for worst case scenario coverage - a highly recommended read.)

Compare this to CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, who spent much of their time in Japan standing around helplessly on a street or rooftop in Tokyo, talking to the CNN anchors in Atlanta.

Curiously, I wrote most of the following about CNN hyperbole surrounding the missile strike at the Gaddafi compound about a week ago, just prior to the Fox News/CNN kerfuffle over the Fox News human shield story.

It’s true that NHK’s coverage seems timid and the press is often too cozy with those they cover.  (For another perspective, here’s another must read - the NYT’s

By the same token, some of CNN’s recent coverage has been so over-the-top, so exaggerated, that it was difficult to take them seriously at times.

Curiously, I wrote most of this blog post on March 21: the Monday after watching a weekend of cable news coverage.  It was the weekend after cruise missile fell in the vicinity of the Gaddafi compound, but before the ensuing kerfuffle over the Fox News human shield story which then triggered a spat between CNN’s Nic Robertson and Fox News’ Steve Harrigan.  (Hopefully, they’ve hugged it out over breakfast by now.)

I was watching cable news extensively over the weekend, and live tweeting a lot of it.   I was switching back and forth among tv channels and also watching live streams of BBC World and Al Jazeera English on my laptop.

CNN (and I’m not talking about Robertson, but how the events were characterized from the anchor desk) was orgasmic over the action in Libya.

It started with the anti-aircraft fire in Tripoli on Saturday, which consisted of some rat-a-tat sounds and camera shots of a pitch dark sky lit by bursts of tracers.  As it was happening, CNN anchor Don Lemon asked Robertson to “get close to a window or an opening” so audiences could listen to the action.

Then, CNN milked the footage, accompanied by breathless commentary by Lemon.

Gushed Lemon the next day: “Nic Robertson and I were on the airlive when the shots rang out in Tripoli.  Perhaps the most dramatic moment so far of this conflict. We’ll show you how it all unfolded live.”

cut to commercial break

Don Lemon: “and perhaps the most dramatic moments of this conflict played out live on this broadcast. Our Nic Robertson was on the air with me when the shots began in response to the U.S. missiles in Tripoli on Saturday.  Here’s how it all unfolded live, on the air, last night.”

Okay - we get it. You were…on the air.  live.  But “perhaps the most dramatic moment of this conflict” - seriously?

Eventually, some members of the press were invited by the Libyan Information Ministry to view what they said was cruise missile damage at the Gaddafi compound.  (Per Al Jazeera English, Anita McNaught - their correspondent in Tripoli - was not invited.)

Robertson said the damage “looked” like a cruise missile strike due to “two holes in the roof.”  Comments by Lemon made it appear as if the strike was  a near certainty.

A single building was hit; by the Libyan government’s own admission there were no injuries.  CNN aired footage of rubble, electrical wire dangling from the ceiling.  A green Libyan flag was held in the camera shot and the Libyans hoisted some sort of debris in the air.

The footage was tame by any standard. At one point, it was hyped by Don Lemon as “remarkable” and “simply amazing.”  He called Nic Robertson’s reporting “fantastic.”

At 4;54p PDT (or so) on March 20, Lemon was hyperventilating that CNN “broke the story.”  Minutes later, over at Fox News, Steve Harrigan urged caution, saying “a producer is just back from scene. There are question marks about this story.” He expressed “skepticism about any claim this government makes. [Gaddafi is] clearly operating a propaganda war…[there have been] a number of deliberate attempts by [Libyan] government minders to herd reporters to scenes they want you to report….McQueen [sp.?] our security expert expressed some doubt about how recently this explosion might have taken place.”

Sometimes later (perhaps an hour or two) the damage to the single building in the compound was finally confirmed as a cruise missile strike.  But, as Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman pointed out  “the end does not justify the means, hype-wise.”  (Goodman was writing about the nuclear crisis in Japan, but the point is the same.)

CNN’s tone was especially off key.  Finally, late Sunday night, weary after 48 hours of listening to the hype, I spouting off and  tweeted this:Incessant CNN hyping of missile strike & crowing about breaking the story - dare I say - makes them look like a Gaddafi tool.

March 20, 2011 11:25:31 PM PDT via web

Do I think CNN is a Gaddafi tool - absolutely not.  And certainly not Nic Robertson, a impressive and intrepid reporter who was actually with Peter Arnett in Baghdad during CNN’s golden age of reporting.   But he was a bit breathless at times, too.

What bothered me was the appearances.  CNN was probably just trying to keep their viewers engaged, and especially trying to keep them from changing the channel.

Since other reporters toured the damaged compound, CNN seemed in a rush to break the Gaddafi story.  But the gushing from the anchor desk made it very difficult to take them seriously.