Linked in Shock

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For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

After the deadliest shooting spree in American history, the nation's TV networks weren't about to preempt prime-time programming to stay on the story. "Instead, it was escapism as usual," Paul Farhi wrote in today's Washington Post. "ABC had Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor, Fox carried 24, CBS stuck with Two and a Half Men, and NBC showed Deal or No Deal.

"Just how big does a story have to be," Farhi asked, "to get the broadcast networks to pay attention during their most watched hours?"

By any measure, the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute yesterday were a huge story.

But in recent memory, Farhi wrote, only a few news events have commanded wall-to-wall coverage on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

Farhi reminds us that they preempted their evening entertainment shows in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and after the deaths of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan.

And, of course, the events of September 11, 2001, prompted almost a full week of nonstop network coverage.

Yesterday, only NBC preempted reruns of My Name Is Earl for an hour-long report at 10pm.

And, in a concession to the tragedy, Fox has decided to pull an episode of Bones tomorrow night in which a college basketball star is discovered dead on campus. Fox will rerun an earlier episode.

Farhi recalled that more than a decade ago, faced with declining audiences and the choice of airing more profitable sitcoms and dramas, the networks began cutting back on coverage of the political conventions, presidential speeches and election-night results. "More often than not, entertainment, not news, rules," Farhi said.

For most of the day yesterday, however, it was a different story. My colleague David Zurawik described how the earliest TV pictures, complete with the sound of gunfire, were provided by Jamal Albarghouti, a Virginia Tech graduate student from the West Bank.

"His cell phone pictures of police charging Norris Hall as shots rang out were broadcast and streamed over and over throughout the day," Zurawik wrote. "The pictures were jumpy and the words occasionally jumbled," but they formed the most immediate and compelling descriptions of the massacre, and they came "not from seasoned reporters," but from a citizen journalist who had yet to graduate from college.

"By dinnertime, CNN was featuring Albarghouti standing on campus, microphone in hand, reporting from the scene as he talked with anchorman Wolf Blitzer" in Washington, Zurawik wrote.

He quoted Dan Abrams, general manager of MSNBC, as saying that on this story, "the Internet and digital technology have been a driving force like never before."

"We're using Webcams, we're soliciting any video that viewers have, we're monitoring the online communities of MySpace and Facebook to bring viewers as much information as we can."

In The New York Times, John Broder wrote that the shootings in Blacksburg "unfolded in an age of instant messaging, cell phone cameras, Internet blogs and social networking sites… as students who were locked in their classrooms and dormitories passed on news and rumors."

Tom Shales, in today's Washington Post, wrote that word of the shootings "was being spread by television, radio and the Internet, and, hardly for the first time, the nation was electronically linked and unified in shock. We didn't just watch; we kept watch."

Television, he wrote, "democratized the sorrow, outrage and alarm, just as it had done, in much larger scale and scope, on 9/11."

Alessandra Stanley, in The New York Times, wrote that the "amazing thing is how familiar campus shootings have become."

The Virginia massacre was "yet another tragedy in which television turned first to amateur reporters on the scene," Stanley wrote.

"Stay out of harm's way," CNN anchor Don Lemon said, addressing students at Virginia Tech. "But send us your pictures and video."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

Banner image: Mannie Garcia, Getty Images



Nick Madigan