COMMENTS: Chengdu Calamity Eclipses West Virginia

Bad luck struck Hillary Rodham Clinton. Normally on a Tuesday during primary season, Campaign 2008 would dominate the day's headlines. But on the day when the second-place candidate was poised for her day in the sun in West Virginia, calamity in Sichuan Province eclipsed her expectations for a come-from-behind success. All three newscasts led from the Chinese city of Chengdu, where the killer earthquake--death toll 13,000 and climbing--was the Story of the Day, occupying 26% of the three-network newshole (16 min out of 62, with the WV primary attracting a scant 6 min). CBS expanded its newshole (24 min v ABC 18, NBC 20) thanks to a single Big Pharma sponsor, Pfizer's Lyrica brand.

In Chengdu itself the big story was the anxiety caused by continuous earthquake aftershocks. "It is as if an entire city has moved outside," ABC's Neal Karlinsky told us. "Even in the rain these people would rather be out in the elements than go back inside their buildings." He showed us hundreds of residents "sleeping along street corners, under umbrellas, under elaborate tarps."

In surrounding cities, the angle was the search through rubble for survivors. CBS' Cynthia Hatton showed us images from Dujiangyan where the mid-afternoon earthquake had crushed students in their classrooms, caused landslides that wiped out buildings and collapsed an entire wing of an hospital. "In many places survivors are in the minority, left to pull hundreds, sometimes thousands of bodies out of the wreckage." The work of rescue teams "is being made much more difficult because of heavy rains, cold weather and thick clouds--all of it adding to the atmosphere of misery."

As for the countryside around the earthquake's epicenter in Wenchuan, "the quake sent boulders crashing down the mountains making 70% of the roads impassable," noted NBC's Ian Williams. "There are reports of entire villages flattened in that region." ABC's Karlinsky added that the weather is "preventing helicopter operations from getting into the hardest hit areas that are still cut off." Rescue teams waiting to get past landslides "are worried what they will find when they break into the region's more remote areas," warned CBS' Hatton.

All three networks filed a follow-up to their own correspondent's lead. ABC ran a compilation of eyewitness accounts (no link) from various reporters: Tokyo TV, BBC, National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal and London's Daily Telegraph. NBC used John Ray, from its British newsgathering partner ITN, who was on the scene at the collapsed school in Dujiangyan. CBS anchor Katie Couric interviewed Mark Laws, a resident of Chengdu, who was on the highway when the earthquake began: "The road was just like a rollercoaster coming towards us. We were up and down, up and down. It lasted for maybe three or four minutes." Friends recounted "running down the stairs of the hotel with the corridors bending as they were running."


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