I don’t have the answers to how and why this happened, but being a media junkie, I do have some reflections on the way it was covered for audiences here in the States.
After an election season where I thought they did an innovative job, MSNBC completely failed today. Granted, they’re not an international network so they don’t have an army of correspondents to call on. But still, in the few segments I saw, I didn’t get the sense they were even trying to make heads or tails of the situation. Instead, what we got was some panel discussions about how a terror attack might be read as a test of Barack Obama as President-elect. I flicked to Fox for a split second; they were debating the same question, but the concern was about the strength terrorists might gather in the interregnum before January 20th. Never mind that none of this makes sense given when it’s Bombay, not Baghdad; at 4:30 EST, when people around the world are still trying to get the basic who-what-when of casualties and injuries, the U.S. political ramifications are manifestly NOT the story.
Meanwhile CNN rose to the challenge. They have the institutional advantage of bureaus and affiliates everywhere that can feed them live footage and photography, and they’ve been ahead of the curve in using the internet to get similar footage from citizen-journalists. [I've said before, and I'll say again, that this is the way citizen-media is likely to achieve its potential: by presenting itself as a resource to the established media and capitalizing on the establishment's brand and reach; not by taking down the big names.]
Moreover, CNN showed today they had mastered the 21st century version of established expertise: today’s expert is not a news anchor, a la Cronkite, telling us what to think; it’s an individual professional, a reporter, interpreting the facts on air, thinking outloud. And there aren’t yet enough citizen-bloggers who’ve been reporting on conflict for 20+ years who can think aloud at the level of CNN’s best.
Allow me to explain: there was a moment when Miles O’Brien was getting confused about who the splinter group claiming responsibility for the attack is (poor thing, he’s just the substitute anchor in for Wolf Blitzer this week and he certainly hadn’t planned on covering a big story after markets closed on a holiday eve). It’s someone named Dekkan Mujahideen and until this morning, no one had heard of them, but as every analyst remarked, they have obviously been at this long enough, given that they launched a coordinated, multisite attack and somehow infiltrated official facilities to get access to a police van and uniforms.
Anyway, O’Brien kept trying to do the old-style anchor thing (where you give the viewer a clear worldview) by painting the level of coordination as a sign that this was al-Qaeda-esque. He had 5 sources on at once and wanted each of them to be his ‘yes’-men in promulgating that view. The reality, however, is that the reporters are the real experts and the silver stroke came when Barbara Starr, who’s been covering the Pentagon and US national security for a zillion years, changed the subject in the middle of O’Brien’s chat with her to tell him, by the way, that this al-Qaeda link was messy. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, she said (I paraphrase), al-Qaeda uses suicide attacks and bombs, not hand grenades and hostage-takings. This, she said, smacks more of the domestic kidnapping economy that has plagued developing countries for decades, now mixed with the ideology of militant fundamentalism, and that’s how officials will likely tackle the case. The FBI correspondent agreed, explaining to O’Brien that U.S. agents will do everything they can to offer support, but that we should (as MSNBC failed to) recognize that not every news story is an American one first. To his credit, O’Brien got the message and spent the next half-hour trying to understand domestic Indian conflicts and what the parameters of international jurisdiction are in such cases.
Finally, the whole team at CNN gets brownie points for recognizing that in crisis moments, the first role of journalists is to inform the public with news they can use. Zain Verjee kept reminding us that the State Department is running a hotline to help Americans get in touch with relatives who might have been staying at the Oberoi and Taj hotels. O’Brien kept apologizing for the time lag on the video feed, “it’s not live, but it’s as live as we can get,” and even for his own ignorance. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but you really got the sense these guys were trying to be public servants. On Thanksgiving Eve, I owe them a little gratitude.