News Copes With Disaster

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

TV news executives agree: Never has a story so tested them and the people they deployed to report on it as the devastation from the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

“This is the most complicated logistical crisis that I have ever covered,” said CNN International managing director Chris Cramer, who had some 80 people in the region at the end of last week. By then, most of CNN’s prime-time anchors, along with the broadcast networks’ star journalists-“CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer of ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams and “Today” news anchor Ann Curry-had begun making their way home.

The challenges that marked the tsunami assignments started with confusion that complicated entry into the countries where the loss of life and infrastructure-and offers of international relief-were toted up on a biblical scale.

Correspondents and crews, many of whom had been on well-earned and far-flung holiday breaks and most of whom have gone through hostile-environment preparation that emphasizes first-aid training, were quickly immunized (treatment to ward off malaria and dengue fever; shots for tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis and polio) and issued some staples of survival.

“NewsNight” anchor Aaron Brown was among the CNN staffers who went into the region carrying granola bars and noodles, which they boiled in mineral water to make hot meals.

ABC News’ “pack-up,” which weighs in at 40 pounds, includes a tent, a sleeping bag, water, concentrated food, flashlights, mosquito netting and over-the-counter medications that can keep a small scratch from turning into a major infection.

Sleeping amenities varied dramatically.

Diane Sawyer gave “GMA” viewers a video glimpse of the rented house in which members of the ABC News crew in Banda Aceh, on the hard-hit northern end of Indonesia, slept on floor mats and shared crowded work space. In the tourist destination of Phuket, Thailand, the journalists slept on cots and lounge chairs until hotel rooms were secured. In southern Sri Lanka, ABC News staff were “just living out under the stars,” said ABC News director of foreign news Chuck Lustig.

Paris-based Fox News correspondent Greg Palkot, who left his vacationing family in southern Italy and bought some clothes on the way to Banda Aceh, spent his first nights in Indonesia sleeping on a floor mat in a government-owned building. After taking one possibly foolhardy shower with public water, he refined the art of showering with 11/2 liters of bottled water. Shaving, brushing teeth and drinking also required bottled water.

He spent much of his working hours in a face mask, which is a flimsy screen against the odor of death and the tsunami’s aftermath that had health experts worried about outbreaks of dysentery and other sanitation-related dangers that follow natural disasters and pose huge health threats to survivors.

The threat of disease, the local food and water supplies that can’t be trusted and the thousands of corpses added up to “a difficult situation,” said Mr. Palkot, who had been in Fallujah, Iraq, six weeks before. “It’s kind of like a war zone with an invisible enemy.”

In some ways it is easier to operate in the increasingly hostile war zone of Baghdad than in areas such as Indonesia, where it was the sneak attack launched by nature that created shock and awe. CBS News foreign editor Chris Hulme said it would take him two or three days to swap out a team in Indonesia. “Even in Baghdad, I can normally do it in a day,” he said.

“This is not parachute journalism,” said Rena Golden, senior VP for CNN International.

The ability to purify water-with tablets or reusable plastic bottles equipped with filters that can clean up many gallons of water-or to otherwise supply safe water was at the top of the list of concerns for journalists in the region.

Danny Noah, the director of foreign news for NBC News, had suggested that correspondent Martin Fletcher procure a solar-heated shower. The crews’ newsgathering ability “is limited by their supply line,” Mr. Noah said.

With several bureaus in Southern Asia, it was easier for CNN to set in motion “constant convoys” with essentials. “It’s very, very complicated,” said Mr. Cramer, who added CNN presses some of the people who would be handling security in locations such as Iraq into quartermaster duty. “These are the people behind the scenes who are minders, who run the logistics and the supply chains.”

While news executives describe coverage of the tsunami’s effects as “very expensive,” most say there has been neither gouging in the affected areas nor budgetary cautions back home.

“We go through a lot of money on stories like this,” Mr. Noah said. He has seen some transportation bills begin to come through already, but “The nitty-gritty comes in later.”

A chunk of that money goes to the locals hired as the fixer/facilitators. It is crucial, said Mr. Noah, to hire “resourceful people who know the lay of the land and can keep our guys healthy.”

It was, however, impossible to immunize the journalists against the emotional roller coaster of an assignment that meant seeing corpses in grotesque numbers and positions while reporting on survivors, including thousands of orphans, and trying to comprehend just how complicated, massive and long-running the process of recovery would be throughout the region.

Mr. Palkot recalled coming across a pile of rubble under which a mother and two daughters were buried and beside which stood the husband and father, who swung between tearful praise for Christians doing so much to help Muslims and abject grief for his family. “What can you do?” he said. “You hold him by the shoulder and commiserate with him. It’s such strong emotion.”

Mr. Cramer found it extraordinary to watch the breakdown of “that artificial detachment that exists in most correspondents.” He believes it produced “some extraordinary journalism. The involvement that the correspondents are feeling is absolutely right and proper.”

Big Story Brings Obscure Names to Forefront

Big stories make or boost stars. While the drama and scope of the tragedy wrought by the tsunami in southern Asia generally brought out the best in the journalists who have covered it in the first two weeks, audiences in the United States found themselves absorbed by the first-rate reporting of some correspondents who are not well-known.

Among the high-profile standouts were CNN rising star Anderson Cooper, ABC News’ leading lady Diane Sawyer and NBC’s indefatigable freelance war correspondent Kevin Sites, who had left Iraq for a commune-with-nature vacation, which he cut short to volunteer for duty in Thailand.

Here are some of the lesser-known correspondents who have risen to the occasion:

  • Nick Watt, London-based ABC News correspondent: The Brit joined ABC News in 1997 as a tape librarian and served as a producer-reporter on many of the biggest stories of the past few years, from war and famine in Liberia and Sudan to the school siege in Beslan, Russia, last year and the war in Iraq. He popped up in Sri Lanka Dec. 26 and five days later in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where Ms. Sawyer pulled him into the spotlight with her on “Good Morning America.”

    “Nick is one of the first people to raise their hand for the tough assignments,” said “ABC World News Tonight” executive producer John Banner. “Nick’s a new face with a lot of experience and even more potential.”

  • Barry Peterson, Tokyo-based CBS News correspondent: After 27 years with CBS, more than half of those years in such outposts as Moscow, London and Japan, Mr. Peterson reminded people of how surely a well-traveled reporter can find the heart on a dramatic story. In a particularly touching piece for “CBS Sunday Morning,” Mr. Peterson wrote about the feelings provoked by his encounters with survivors in Thailand. Of one woman looking for her German boyfriend, he said, “She could hardly speak. We could hardly listen.”

  • Aneesh Raman, Bangkok-based CNN video correspondent: Mr. Raman is a member of the new digital news-gathering unit that
    has laptops and will travel because they can shoot, write and edit their own material in the field. Hour after hour, day after day, he has filed long and fluid stand-up reports from Phuket, Thailand. “They’re so used to doing breaking news,” said CNN International Senior VP Rena Golden. “He has this great sense of recall.”

  • Hugh Riminton, Hong Kong-based CNN International senior anchor: Mr. Riminton, a bespectacled New Zealander, was anchoring for Australia’s Channel 9 when CNNI convinced him to move to Hong Kong-which is where he was having Christmas dinner with a CNNI executive when he heard about the tsunami. Though he had not yet debuted on CNNI, he didn’t hesitate to say, “I know the area,” and volunteer to head for Sri Lanka, picking up a visa at the airport. He made what was clearly hard look easy.
  • Satinder Bindra, New Delhi-based CNN bureau chief and correspondent: Mr. Bindra, whose previous experience included covering South Asia for the CBC and Canadian Television, joined CNN as the overseer of coverage for India and South Asia in 1999. He ended a report on survivors in Galle, Sri Lanka, by summoning up the image of an 11-year-old boy he had met whose father and sister were presumed dead. “You can’t help but think … how his life is just forever changed no matter what happens, no matter when the relief gets there.”