Shenanigans in San Francisco were the Story of the Day as both ABC and CBS led with frayed tempers and nervous police provoked by the so-called Journey of Harmony, as the global relay of the Olympic Torch is called, to drum up enthusiasm and publicity for the Beijing Games. Publicity was no problem as the spectacle of municipal authorities switching routes and nixing schedules grabbed headlines. Enthusiasm was harder to find: Buddhist-led protestors bemoaned the People's Republic of China's violations of human rights in Tibet and support for repression in Myanmar; and street artists reenacted the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. NBC covered the torch too, but led with the disruption of American Airlines' domestic schedule because of protracted safety inspections. Not a single report was filed on Campaign 2008.    
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video thumbnailCBSBeijing Summer Olympic Games previewedTorch diverted in San Francisco, dodges crowdsBill WhitakerSan Francisco
video thumbnailNBCAir safety: aging jetliner fleet requires inspectionMD-80 checks cancel American Airlines flightsTom CostelloWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSMormon fundamentalist sect practices polygamyTexas compound challenges removal of childrenHari SreenivasanTexas
video thumbnailNBCIraq: US-led invasion forces' combat continuesGen Petraeus questioned on withdrawal prospectsJim MiklaszewskiCapitol Hill
video thumbnailABCCIA accused of rendition, torture of suspectsPrincipal members of NSC approved abusesJan Crawford GreenburgNew York
video thumbnailABCMilitary surplus equipment sales snafusGAO exposes online sales of sensistive gearJonathan KarlWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSFederal bureaucracy credit cards for petty purchasesAbuse, personal spending, outright fraud exposedChip ReidCapitol Hill
video thumbnailCBSAgribusiness suffers shortage of field laborArizona produce growers expand to MexicoJohn BlackstoneMexico
video thumbnailABCCollege professor terminally ill: farewell lectureInspirational talk becomes hit video, bookDiane SawyerNo Dateline
video thumbnailNBCRetailer Wal-Mart insider corporate video releasedExecutives in drag among embarrassing footageMichelle Caruso-CabreraCNBC
I LEFT MY TORCH IN THE CITY BY THE BAY Shenanigans in San Francisco were the Story of the Day as both ABC and CBS led with frayed tempers and nervous police provoked by the so-called Journey of Harmony, as the global relay of the Olympic Torch is called, to drum up enthusiasm and publicity for the Beijing Games. Publicity was no problem as the spectacle of municipal authorities switching routes and nixing schedules grabbed headlines. Enthusiasm was harder to find: Buddhist-led protestors bemoaned the People's Republic of China's violations of human rights in Tibet and support for repression in Myanmar; and street artists reenacted the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. NBC covered the torch too, but led with the disruption of American Airlines' domestic schedule because of protracted safety inspections. Not a single report was filed on Campaign 2008.

CBS' Bill Whitaker evoked the incendiary worries of civic leaders: dropping the torch in the middle of San Francisco, "one of the most politically active cities in the country, would be like dropping a match in kerosene." So instead they made the celebratory relay as hard to see as possible. Its whereabouts were concealed; its route was changed; the distance of the run was halved; and the closing ceremonies were held at an "undisclosed location." CBS' Whitaker called it a game of "hide the torch." ABC's Laura Marquez (embargoed link) marveled at a "remarkable piece of choreography." NBC's Peter Alexander saw torchbearers "escorted by a human shield of local police and Chinese paramilitary guards."

CBS anchor Katie Couric sought out David Wallechinsky, an historian of the Olympic Games. Referring to the secrecy and invisibility of the Olympic symbol, she inquired, reasonably: "Does this not defeat the whole point of the Olympic Torch relay?" "People fighting, pushing each other around, hiding it--that goes completely against the whole idea," he agreed. As for human rights abuses, they are no obstacle to the Games, Wallechinsky reminded us: just ten days before the 1968 opening ceremonies, "authorities shot to death about 250 people in the streets of Mexico City and they still went ahead with the Olympics anyway."

A BUREAUCRAT’S REVENGE NBC's Tom Costello made use of his network's affiliates to dramatize the chaos in the terminals at American Airlines' hubs as 150,000 passengers were unable to fly because its entire fleet of 300 MD-80 jetliners, responsible for 65% of its domestic flights, had to inspected once more. Anna Davlantes of Channel 5 in Chicago prowled the hallways at O'Hare while Scott Friedman of Channel 5 in Texas followed up at Dallas/Fort Worth. Costello pointed out that the problem was that the spacing of the ties that bundled wires together in wheel wells was too far apart. He smelled a bureaucrat's revenge at humiliation: "The FAA's new scrutiny comes after it was embarrassed and ridiculed for allowing serious lapses at Southwest Airlines." On CBS, Nancy Cordes quoted American as claiming that the violation was merely technical but then countered with the FAA's directive, finding that any short could cause a fuel tank to explode. ABC's Lisa Stark (embargoed link) looked at the quality of American's customer service. The airline's Website instructed passengers to call its hotline. Guess what the hotline said: "All of our representatives are busy at this time. If you need to speak to someone, please try your call later."

HARDLY INNOCENT CBS had Hari Sreenivasan file for a third straight day on the mass commitment of children and teenagers from the Yearning for Zion ranch in Texas. He reported that the case has gone beyond child welfare to a criminal investigation, with prosecutors alleging "physical and sexual abuse." He quoted from an unsealed affidavit alleging that the fundamentalist Mormons' temple included bed used for statutory rape. ABC assigned Dan Harris (embargoed link) to an explainer on the legal and moral questions the case raises: "Do two phone calls from a 16-year-old girl alleging abuse really constitute enough evidence to justify taking custody of 416 children?" "What about the religious freedoms of this polygamist church?" "Whether eventually to take these children away from their mothers, mothers who could, technically, be considered guilty of not protecting their children?" "How could authorities in Texas have allowed this to take place under their noses?"

ABC's Harris seemed in no doubt that the fundamentalist Mormons were guilty, even before they are charged: "Sometimes what it takes to stop abuse, even when the suspicion is strong, is a scared brave 16-year-old on a cell phone"--although that weasel word "sometimes" may turn out to be enough of a fig leaf to preserve the proper presumption of innocence.

THE TRUE DECIDERS Only NBC followed Gen David Petraeus after Tuesday's Story of the Day Senate hearings over to the House side. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski concentrated on the politician's mood about the Iraq War rather than the general's testimony. That is because it is likely to be "the American people, when they choose a new President in November, who will ultimately decide the future course of the war" not generals or politicians. To that end Miklaszewski quoted his network's latest poll: 52% favor a troop pullout in the beginning of 2009, 43% want "troops to remain until the situation is stable."

This happens to be the fifth anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad as his Baath Party was ousted. NBC's Richard Engel was an eyewitness: then the people of Baghdad was "very excited about the prospect of liberation." Now "that very same square is under curfew."

NOT KINDLY ABC brandished an Exclusive label on the results of Jan Crawford Greenburg's Investigation into the National Security Council's approval of CIA torture of three captured leaders of al-Qaeda--although she did not use the word "torture." Instead she described the "enhanced interrogation techniques" as being "slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subjected to simulated drowning" or a "choreographed" interrogation using them in combination.

Crawford Greenburg revealed that six principal members of the NSC discussed what techniques to use in detail and explicitly approved them. They were Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet and John Ashcroft. CIA Director Tenet insisted that the discussions take place in order to protect his spies from prosecution. Attorney General Ashcroft argued that the tactics were legal yet he predicted: "History will not judge this kindly."

The first prisoner whose case Tenet brought to the NSC was abu-Zubaydah who had been captured in Pakistan but was "uncooperative." Crawford Greenburg quoted unidentified "officials" as claiming that after he was waterboarded abu-Zubaydah "gave up valuable information that led them to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed." When the CIA captured a third al-Qaeda leader and asked NSC Advisor Rice for permission to continue "enhanced" techniques, she was reportedly decisive: "This is your baby. Go do it."

Crawford Greenburg concluded with President George Bush's position on these interrogations: they are "legal and produced critical information that saved lives."

GAO OFFERS GOODIES The Government Accountability Office issued a couple of reports: Governmentwide Purchase Cards and Internet Sales. Wade through the bureaucratese and the former is an expose of the misuse of credit cards given to government officials to cut through requisition red tape when making petty cash purchases. ABC's David Kerley reported on that Tuesday; CBS' Chip Reid Wednesday: charges for lingerie, gambling debt, manicures and steak dinners were among the imaginative expenses. The latter report concerns military surplus goods, mostly stolen, that end up for sale on eBay and craigslist even though they are supposed to be used exclusively by US armed forces. ABC's Jonathan Karl listed infrared uniform tabs, components for Chinook helicopters, body armor, night vision gear, uniforms and spare parts for F-14 fighter jets: "The only country in the world still flying F-14s is Iran."

In an NBC Investigation Lisa Myers followed up on those infrared tabs, usually in the design of the Stars & Stripes flag. They are used to distinguish friend from foe during nighttime combat so the Pentagon should be eager for them not to fall into the wrong hands near Iraq. "We asked an NBC staffer with an Arab name living in the Middle East to see if he could buy these items. No problem." The patches were shipped to his hotel in Jordan. The patches are "widely available" in military surplus stores and online, Myers added, and the "transactions are legal."

ELSEWHERE… Lucky John Blackstone snared a trip to San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato to continue CBS' Immigration Nation series. He found Steve Scaroni, a lettuce farmer, who has started to shift his production south of the border because of the shortage of Mexican field labor in Arizona…NBC's sibling financial news network CNBC was among the purchasers of insider corporate video from Flagler Productions, a longtime supplier for Wal-Mart, now fired. Flagler is making its 30 years of tapes available to news organizations and plaintiff lawyers and union organizers for a fee. For NBC's In Depth, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera showed us CNBC's picks: a 1995 pep rally in which male executives dressed in drag…Hyperion, the publishing arm of Disney, has turned Professor Randy Pausch's YouTube hit The Last Lecture into a book. Pausch is the terminal pancreatic cancer patient whose farewell words of wisdom have "inspired 10m people to change their lives," according to Diane Sawyer. Sawyer previewed a Primetime profile of Pausch on ABC, which is a Disney sibling of Hyperion. She did not mention Hyperion by name or their connection.

THE ANACHRONISTIC ANCHOR Rebecca Dana at The Wall Street Journal broke the news overnight that CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric is "likely" to leave the network before her contract expires in 2011, possibly as soon as January of 2009.

Couric has certainly failed to live up to the hype that accompanied her ascension to the anchor chair in the fall of 2006. The settled formulas of the network nightly newscast proved harder to reinvent than she and her first executive producer Rome Hartman expected. CBS' decade-long third place in the ratings proved especially stubborn to shake off. The hoopla surrounding her arrival--a new set, a new logo, her shattering of that glass ceiling, her face plastered on the side of buses next to Dr Phil--provided an evanescent boost to CBS' ratings, prompted more by curiosity than superior journalism.

But these problems hardly constitute Couric's failures so much as the burden of unrealistically high expectations. There was once a time, when broadcast television networks had monopoly power, that ratings problems could be solved by throwing multimillion dollar contracts at celebrity journalists. Roone Arledge, the mentor of CBS News President Sean McManus, was the master of this technique, assembling a roster of Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters and David Brinkley and Ted Koppel back in the 1980s. But this is the 21st century. Mass media sized audiences are never returning to broadcast television, so celebrity solutions for solving shrinking ratings no longer apply.

Couric can hardly be blamed for pocketing the enormous check, $15m or so each year, that CBS News thrust upon her. CBS News certainly made an error in making her the offer. And she certainly cannot be faulted for not working as hard as her rivals. At Tyndall Report we logged almost as many reports filed by Couric at CBS in the past 18 months as by Charles Gibson at ABC (97 v 116) and many more than Brian Williams' 57 at NBC.

The 21st century task facing an organization like CBS News is to leverage its still substantial broadcast television presence, exploiting its promotional clout and accompanying resources, in order to increase its audience on all other platforms. All the growth CBS News can look forward to will be away from television, as we watch our video news on our cell phones, our PlayStations, our computer screens, on YouTube, via shared as e-mails and embedded players and so on.

It is a delicious irony that the oldest and most staid news formula on television--the half hour evening newscast--happens to be composed of video packages, each two minutes or so in duration, that are the ready made unit for modern day YouTube video viewing. There are only two differences between those video packages strung together in a newscast and available individually online: first, on television they are interrupted by youth-repelling commercials for pharmaceuticals and other wrinkle-targeted products; second, that guiding hand of an anchor introduces each piece. Online viewers are liberated from Big Pharma and Big Anchor.

Reported hard news from global hotspots and the corridors of power has always been the bread and butter content of the nightly news. The newscasts have always been a correspondents' and producers' medium, the journalists on the scene covering the day's events, with the anchor playing a secondary, facilitating role. As that news shifts from broadcast television to multiplatform video, the on-the-scene content becomes yet more prominent and the anchor's role recedes yet further.

CBS News never needed an anchor to increase its audience; instead it needed an aggressive online strategy. And if hard news is key to that strategy, the last type of anchor it needed was an expensive celebrity whose major skills were those of a morning show interviewer and whose favorite news beat was human interest.

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: a suspected leader of al-Qaeda, abu-Ubaida al-Masri, has died of natural causes…the Pentagon is investigating more than 600 cases of sexual assault against females in uniform in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan…former President Bill Clinton was paid $800,000 by a group that supports a free trade agreement with Colombia, a deal his candidate wife Hillary Rodham Clinton opposes…the two-time vaccination against mumps may be insufficient; a third booster may be needed…an apartment building complex for the elderly in Detroit caught fire; all residents were rescued.