COMMENTS: The Whole World Was Watching

The Chilean government estimated that a global audience of 1bn watched its video feed of the rescue of 33 trapped miners from a copper mine under its northern desert. Cameras showed the cavern half a mile underground where the men had awaited rescue for ten weeks--the first 17 days before they were discovered almost foodless--and the podlike capsule in which, one by one, they were winched to the surface. Needless to say, the network nightly newscasts were just as transfixed as the rest of the world. Coverage of the Chilean story took up 61% of the three-network newshole (35 out of 57 mins). ABC (15 min v CBS 10, NBC 9) found the story most compelling, turning its newscast into a Special Edition dubbed Miracle at the Mine and promoting an hourlong primetime 20/20 special on the rescue.

The two network reporters who had logged the most time at the mine were Seth Doane for CBS and Jeffrey Kofman for ABC. Not surprisingly, they had the most insightful takes on the day's events. Doane was chosen by CBS to lead its coverage. He made no bones about turning the drama into a human interest story, pure and simple. He borrowed from the formulas his own network's primetime reality TV programing, offering Survivor-style vignettes of the liberated men.

A Doane sampler: "His starring role on the miners' videos has earned him the nickname Super Mario…a mechanic who rarely entered the mine had gone down to repair a vehicle…Barrios is going from thriller to a soap opera, welcomed by his 56-year-old mistress Susana. His wife of 28 years, Marta, only found out about the affair during his entrapment…Pena reportedly ran six miles a day underground to Elvis Presley music. He has now been invited to visit Graceland." Ironically, Doane's colleague John Blackstone rounded off CBS' newscast with the caveat: "Not reality TV but real TV."

[UPDATE: a reader e-mails: "Doane misused 'entrapment.' It's a legal term meaning something completely different from what he intended." Entombment, perhaps?]

ABC's Kofman tried to treat the day's events as a bona fide hard news story. "It was an accident in a troubled mine that did not have the safety equipment it should have. A missing escape ladder would have given the men a way out," he recounted. As soon as the mine collapsed the Ministry of Mines took over the search and, later, supervised the rescue. "Chilean naval engineers were designing the capsule; the Health Ministry a protocol to care for the men." Anchor Diane Sawyer followed up with an interview with Chile's President Sebastian Pinera. Kofman concluded with "an interesting contradiction--this accident was caused in part by the failure of Chilean government safety inspectors but the swift and efficient response of the Chilean government turned what could have been a tragedy into an inspiration."

No surprise, ABC did not emphasize Kofman's attempts at framing these joyous events into such a serious context. Kofman was not assigned to lead off the newscast. That slot belonged to Nightline anchor Bill Weir: "For about 130 years this mine has produced copper--a little bit of gold--but today it produced men!" ABC also used John Quinones, anchor of What Would You Do?, to describe the group dynamics of the 33 during their ten weeks underground and in-house physician Richard Besser on the health problems associated with darkness, heat, humidity and food deprivation.

Rounding out its newscast ABC turned to 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas for a reflection on how the rescue became a global television phenomenon. By the way all three of the newscasts ended with this angle--Mike Taibbi filed for NBC and Blackstone for CBS. ABC's Vargas accounted for the compelling nature of the video thus: "It is not often that in every corner of the world people pause, as they did today, to marvel at the resilience of our fellow human beings. For men, women and children in nearly every country on Earth it has been 24 hours of sheer wonder; over the past 24 hours we have witnessed a universal sigh of relief…This was such happiness and celebration and made everybody wonder: 'Could I have survived in those circumstances?'"

Granted, there were other packages on other newscasts covering other angles: NBC's Kerry Sanders on the rescue itself; CBS' Ben Tracy on the technological cooperation of mining experts; NBC's Natalie Morales on the desert campground vigil by the women in the miners' families. And surely there will be follow-up coverage as the week continues. Yet it is no surprise that this turned out to be a day on which ABC made the extra effort.

This is the type of story that galvanizes anchor Sawyer. Consider how she frames it. In introducing Weir she invoked "a group of ordinary men, Chilean miners, remind the world of the joy of fresh air, sunlight, life, family--and tomorrow." With Quinones, she sought "lessons about what it is to stifle fear, panic, hunger…and hold on. We want to learn them." As for Vargas, Sawyer reflected that "every now and then something happens that seems to remind all of us on this small planet of what we have in common--33 men in Chile who simply went to work to take care of their families."

In January, Tyndall Report surveyed Sawyer's first few weeks in the anchor chair. Back then I suggested that "for Sawyer, journalism seems to have a higher calling than the illumination public policy. Rather than mere civil society, she seems more interested in human nature itself…For Diane, what journalism can do uniquely is to elucidate the true moral core of humanity. By bearing witness to how individuals behave in extremis, her journalism seeks to reveal what we humans are made of, irrespective of age or station, background or nationality. Her focus is not on changing society; her vision does not belong to the progressive agenda. Imparting eternal moral lessons is the root of Sawyer's journalism."

Her enthusiasm for the Chilean story--and the lessons she learned from it--vindicates this analysis. It is a commonplace shorthand in discussions of television journalism to refer to FOX News Channel as the conservative network. Yet FNC is as committed as any liberal to the concept that human governments and institutions are both the causes and the potentials solutions of society's problems. FNC is passionately involved in the political, partisan struggles over who controls those institutions and how they are run. A conservative is skeptical that the human condition is susceptible to social engineering.

Sawyer is the true conservative. For her the world is personal not programatic, inspirational not partisan. Remember her trip to Louisville for ABC's Going Home series, a series in which reporters returned to their hometowns to find local programs to relieve the economic pain caused by the recession. Louisville is saddled with an unemployment rate of close to 10%. Sawyer's solution: "When you are in the dark, sometimes one outstretched hand can save your life." She profiled an interfaith prayer circle that dedicates 30 days to supporting an individual unemployed person, restoring self-esteem, soliciting donations. The group helps two people each month out of the city's 63,000 jobless. Sawyer praised the "one little candle principle. If you light that one candle. It is that children's song."

In that vein, Sawyer found this takehome message from the survival of the--make that 34--miners upon seeing Quinones' package: "John, you were saying the 33 miners said there was another miner down there…God was there with them, they believe." No wonder she labeled this human engineering accomplishment a divine "miracle."


Here's a story that NBC Nightly News DID NOT report:

On Wednesday, the FDA issued a warning about bisphosphonates, a category of drugs (including Boniva) that are used to strengthen bones and treat the symptoms of osteoporosis. These drugs are now believed to cause an increased risk of thigh fractures in many patients who use them. According to an Oct. 13 article at, "The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning on Wednesday linking long-term use of popular osteoporosis drugs to an unusual fracture of the thigh bone."

"The F.D.A. said the labels and medication guides would be changed to show the new warning in oral bisphosphonates including Actonel, Atelvia, Boniva, and Fosamax and injectible drugs including Boniva and Reclast, and their generic equivalents. Genentech is working closely with the F.D.A. to add a statement to Boniva labels warning of the possible increased fracture risk, according to Terry Hurley, spokesman for Genentech, the Roche subsidiary that sells Boniva in the United States."

(The entire article can be read at

This story was not reported on Nightly News. The reason is obvious. At least three of the above-mentioned drugs, Boniva, Fosamax and Reclast, are Nightly News advertisers. Boniva advertises almost every night. By not reporting this story, Brian Williams and his producers are intentionally protecting Boniva and the other Nightly News sponsors from negative publicity.

On May 14 & 17, Nightly News aired a two-part interview (totalling more than five minutes) that Brian Williams conducted with Sally Field. The first part of the interview was exclusively about Field's Boniva ads, including Brian's in-depth questions about the dog that appears with Field in the ads. The interview included fifteen seconds of Boniva ad clips, and constituted a 90 second commercial for Boniva. The second part of the interview also
(CONTINUED) mentioned Boniva. So when Brian feels like helping out his pals at Boniva, he gives them free air time as part of a "news story" on his broadcast. But when the FDA issues a warning about Boniva, Nightly News refuses to report it. Nightly News is little more than a shameless shill for its advertisers. Brian Williams and his producers should be ashamed of themselves. But, of course, they're not.

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