Few things are as eye-catching to the lens of a television news camera than an inferno. Last week's national headlines were led by a local blaze in a South Carolina furniture store. Now a local forest fire on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe in California's Sierra Nevada is the Story of the Day. Never mind free speech rulings from the Supreme Court or political assassinations in Baghdad, all three networks led with the blaze in El Dorado County.    
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video thumbnailCBSWild forest fires in western statesHigh winds fan flames south of Lake TahoeBill WhitakerCalifornia
video thumbnailNBCWild forest fires in western statesSevere summer predicted in 19 drought statesDon TeagueDallas
video thumbnailABC
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Iraq: political coalition government under fireLeading Sunni sheikhs from al-Anbar assassinatedJohn HendrenBaghdad
video thumbnailCBSIraq: political coalition government under fireLeading Sunni sheikhs from al-Anbar assassinatedLara LoganBaghdad
video thumbnailNBCPublic schools permitted to censor HS studentsBan on Bong Hits 4 Jesus banner allowed by S.CtPete WilliamsSupreme Court
video thumbnailNBCHijacked jets kamikaze attacks on NYC, DCHouse hearings on EPA role over toxic WTC airRehema EllisNew York
video thumbnailABCPhilanthropy and charitable donation trendsAnnual giving totals $295bn, mostly to churchesCharles GibsonNew York
video thumbnailNBCLumber industry innovations to be eco-friendlyCanadians log underwater trees from reservoirsAnne ThompsonBritish Columbia
video thumbnailCBSPrisons: Italian organized crime inmates turn chefsMobsters run restaurant in medieval castle jailAllen PizzeyItaly
video thumbnailABC
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Videogames titles, design, development trendsNintendo players stage Wii-mbledon tournamentBill BlakemoreNew York
FIRE BUGS Few things are as eye-catching to the lens of a television news camera than an inferno. Last week's national headlines were led by a local blaze in a South Carolina furniture store. Now a local forest fire on the southern shores of Lake Tahoe in California's Sierra Nevada is the Story of the Day. Never mind free speech rulings from the Supreme Court or political assassinations in Baghdad, all three networks led with the blaze in El Dorado County.

The Lake Tahoe fire was spectacular, fanned by 35mph winds, destroying as many as 200 structures, but it was hardly catastrophic: "No one has reported any injuries," CBS' Bill Whitaker announced. Still, the fire that started on Sunday afternoon was hardly under control at the news hour. "Poor visibility from all the smoke has hampered water-dropping aircraft," NBC's George Lewis explained. "It is simply too dangerous to fly in this mountainous terrain." As ABC's Miguel Marquez (subscription required) walked through the now-ashen trees after the flames swept through, he observed that "the forest floor is still too hot to touch."

ABC and NBC sought to put this local news in a national context. NBC's Don Teague found that severe droughts in both western states and the southeast have placed 19 states--half the land area of the United States--at significant risk for wildfires. In the west, ABC's Brian Rooney pointed out, a lighter than usual winter snowfall has left the brush dry and "every year more houses are built on the edge of wild land" causing firefighting costs to increase.

HOTEL INSECURITY Only last Friday, CBS' Lara Logan reported from Iraq on the plans of Shiite opposition leader Aziz al-Yasiri to organize a vote of no confidence against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The former general was meeting in Baghdad's al-Mansour Hotel with five sheikhs, Sunni tribal leaders who had recently turned against al-Qaeda in al-Anbar Province and joined forces with the US military. All six were among the ten killed in the hotel's lobby by a suicide bomber. "The air was thick with the smell of human flesh," Logan reported. ABC's John Hendren (subscription required) showed us the remnants of an Arab headdress that had been literally blown off by the bomb. Hendren narrated a Virtual View computer graphic that demonstrated the triple checkpoint the assassin had to pass to reach his target. As Hendren trudged through the rubble, he gestured sarcastically: "This is exactly the type of gathering that is among the best hopes for a stable peaceful Iraq." NBC mentioned the assassinations only in passing.

SPLIT SPEECH VOTES The Supreme Court went in two directions simultaneously in its free speech rulings. It struck down the ban on issues advertising during election campaigns--in favor of interest groups, ABC's George Stephanopoulos suggested, such as the Sierra Club and National Right to Life. "This ruling blows a hole in the McCain-Feingold Act." Now, Stephanopoulos explained "you can run TV ads right up until Election Day praising candidates, criticizing candidates, as long as you do not use the words 'Vote For' or 'Vote Against.'" The ruling argued that "it can be hard" to tell the difference between an authentic issues ad and an attack ad in disguise, NBC's Pete Williams elaborated. "When it comes to free speech, the tie goes to the speaker not the censor."

High school students, on the other hand, "just do not have the same Constitutional rights that the rest of us do," CBS' in-house legal eagle Andrew Cohen told Wyatt Andrews (no link). That ruling concerned the slogan Bong Hits 4 Jesus, a sentiment directed at the Olympic Torch as it passed through Juneau Alaska in 2002. NBC's Williams called the message "a nonsensical phrase intended to test free speech rights." That test did not go so well: the principal tore the banner down; she suspended its author from school; she was supported in doing so not only by the Supreme Court but by ABC anchor Charles Gibson. "I would think that most people would look at this as common sense," he opined when the Jesus message was construed as harmful advocacy of illegal behavior. ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg (no link) reminded Gibson of the counterargument: "Students should be able to talk about drug use. Maybe they want to change drug laws."

Both rulings were narrow majorities, a 5-4 vote, perhaps a consequence of George Bush's nominee Samuel Alito replacing the Court's onetime swing vote Sandra Day O'Connor. NBC's Williams called it a "more conservative court now" and CBS' Andrews noted its "direction towards pro-business, anti-lawsuit and anti-abortion." He called it 'what the President was hoping for" when he appointed Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

THE AIR THAT I BREATHE A House committee held hearings into whether the Environmental Protection Agency misled New Yorkers about the safety of breathing the air in downtown Manhattan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Most of those who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center were damaged: CBS' Byron Pitts cited a study that showed 70% of "workers at Ground Zero suffered some sort of respiratory illness" and NBC's Rehema Ellis reminded us that the air was laced with "harmful pulverized concrete, asbestos and glass." Giving testimony was Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA Administrator at the time. She was on the record as warning workers to take precautions even though "we did not have the authority to enforce that" as she told Katie Couric on CBS' 60 Minutes. As for members of the public outside the work site, she assured them at the time "the danger had settled," NBC's Ellis pointed out, yet since then, not only rescue workers but those who "live and work near Ground Zero claim that the air they breathed did make them sick and the government should have done more to protect them." ABC mentioned the hearings only in passing.

TOTAL GIVEAWAY ABC anchor Charles Gibson assigned a report by the Giving USA Foundation on trends in charitable donations to himself. "Americans give a lot," was the bottom line. Last year total philanthropy amounted to $295bn, with the top three categories being $97bn to religious institutions, $41bn to educational ones and $12bn to the arts. Claire Gaudiani, author of The Greater Good, told Gibson: "More Americans make a donation every year than vote, by a long shot, than watch the Super Bowl and even than eat a fast food meal."

FOOD BEHIND BARS & TREES UNDERWATER CBS and NBC both closed their newscasts with an international dateline. CBS' Allen Pizzey had plastic fork in hand as he dined on maximum security cuisine at a C15th Italian fortress. Inmates at the Volterra Prison run a once-a-month restaurant for those from the outside world. The maitre d' is a bank robber. The brocade-clad waiter is a Sardinian bandit. Entertainment is provided by a knife murderer. "The staff is very good at offering a pasta you cannot refuse."

NBC's Anne Thompson filed from a reservoir along the Powell River in British Columbia. The water there is so cold and oxygen free that the trees in a forest that was submerged for a hydroelectric project have not rotted. Lumberjacks work with a remote controled submarine-cum-chainsaw that is so eco-friendly that it earned the seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance, neat underwater video for NBC and a major coup for the public relations department of Triton Logging.

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY For NBC's In Depth John Larson followed up on Friday's inquiry by CBS' Daniel Sieberg into whether obsessed online videogame players have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Larson found one World Warcraft gamer who claimed to have played for 30 hours straight without a bathroom break. On a more topical note, ABC's Bill Blakemore (subscription required) hung out in a bar in Brooklyn where Nintendo players celebrated the All England grass court championships with their own Wii tennis tournament. Yes, they called it Wiimbledon and, yes, the champion was the Wiiner.

MENTIONED IN PASSING The network newscasts do not assign correspondents to all of the news of the day. If Tyndall Report readers come across videostreamed reports online of stories that were mentioned only in passing, post the link in comments for us to check out.

Today's examples: at a Middle East peace summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, Israel promised a prison release for 250 Fatah militants…staph infections afflict 5% of all hospital patients, as many as 30,000 nationwide on any given day…members of the annual class of Presidential Scholars, an elite group of graduating high school seniors invited to the White House, presented President Bush with an anti-torture petition.