Anderson Cooper reports from Haiti on the aftermath of the earthquake. (cnn.com )
Anderson Cooper clambered to the top of a pile of rubble along a ruined Port-au-Prince street, joining the clutch of men digging fervently inside a dark crevasse. As his cameraman zoomed in on a pair of small, naked feet, the CNN anchor described the struggle to free 13-year-old Bea.
The images swept the cable station's audience, in an instant, into a moment as intimate as it was epic, as unsettling as it was affirming -- a microcosm of Haiti's struggle these last three days. Could a handful of amateur rescuers, armed with a single shovel, win one skirmish against the country's sweeping devastation?
A few moments later, the men dragged the dusty, disheveled girl -- one leg probably broken -- into the sunlight. Some 18 hours after a massive earthquake, Cooper and his CNN colleagues were the first Western broadcast journalists who delivered the most indelible images from the heart of the impact zone. So he had the privilege Wednesday afternoon of interviewing Bea, who told the world that, despite her cries: "I wasn't scared. I wasn't scared of anything."
Haiti's misery and suffering have been hard to watch, but they have offered confirmation of the invaluable contributions made in times of crisis by mainstream news outlets like CNN.
Some of the Earth's neediest people have been visited by an almost unbearable, added burden. And cable television's pioneering outlet has risen to the occasion, making sure the world sees the painful realities.
CNN's determination to stick with the news stands in stark contrast to its competitors, particularly Fox News, that in prime time have increasingly been committed to building their brands with political commentary over straight reporting.
When critics accuse Fox of being a tool of the conservative political movement, the company's executives counter that they deliver serious news during much of the day.
But its prime-time headliners expose the values of the entire operation, and this week they've given abysmally short shrift to the biggest crisis in the world.
Why dwell on one of our closest hemispheric neighbors in its hour of dire need, when -- like both Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck -- you can conduct prolonged, frothy promotional interviews with Fox's newest contributor, Sarah Palin?
Why focus on all that misery, if, like Hannity on Wednesday, you can engage conservative virago Michelle Malkin in a soaring conversation about the Obama administration's "culture of corruption."
Bill O'Reilly played his no-Haiti card too, managing a gripping discussion Wednesday with Bo Derek about the threat to the West's wild horses. Not to mention those whales being hunted by the Japanese in the Southern Ocean.
Cable operator MSNBC couldn't match CNN's boots-on-the-rubble immediacy either. NBC anchor Brian Williams, morning host Ann Curry and others were holed up at the Port-au-Prince airport Wednesday evening because of security concerns, before getting into the city Thursday to cover the story more directly.
But at least the cable affiliate did its best to tell the story from outside the epicenter. It dedicated more than two hours to the quake in its three major prime-time shows, compared with less than seven minutes presented by Fox's biggest stars Wednesday night, according to the liberal media watchdog, Media Matters.
Randall E. King, a professor of media communications at Indiana Wesleyan University, said he was surprised and disappointed to see Fox devote so little attention to the story. King said the evening hours are crucial because they signal what a TV outlet views as the day's most compelling topics.
"When a real crisis comes and there's an opportunity to really serve as a leading news organization, to make a conscious decision to not cover this is an abandonment of journalistic responsibility," said King. The one-time television reporter said the prime-time hosts, despite their opinion focus, should have paid more attention to the crisis just off our southern border.
A Fox insider told me she didn't want to be quoted but called those assessments unfair, saying that coverage outside of prime time of the disaster had been considerable and would be ramped up Thursday night. During Fox's equivalent of the evening news, Shepard Smith did provide significant coverage of Haiti. Greta Van Susteren devoted a chunk of her program to the disaster, though not from the scene, as intended, when her plane was turned away from Haiti's crowded main airport.
Fox's lack of focus on the subject during its most popular programs was not for a lack of resources. A moneymaking juggernaut, the cable giant had about 20 employees in Haiti by midweek, nine of them on-air personalities.
Based on what went out over the air, though, you'd hardly know. Only one of those correspondents seemed able to get into the heart of the capital, with much of the reporting coming from staging areas and the secure airport.