We have an enormous area of this country, including the most densely populated region of the United States, in the grips of an enormous and ongoing crisis tonight. This is another dark, cold night for millions of people, and just today for a lot of people, things started feeling a little unhinged because some of the machinery of a civil society has stopped working.
That's how Brian Williams launched into his 10:00 PM broadcast of Rock Center last night. His strong opener was then followed by an hour of solid reporting about the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, including riveting segments by Ann Curry, Savannah Guthrie and Tom Brokaw (nice to see him in the field).
The show closed with a segment about global warming and the need for cities like New York to prepare for a new normal of superstorms and floods.
Meanwhile, over on primetime Fox News, there was barely a mention of hurricane Sandy. It was a virtual editorial blackout. Not just last night, but Wednesday night, too. No mention of the president touring the ravaged regions of New Jersey and New York, and certainly not a peep about the praise Governor Chris Christie had for the president's team and its initial handling of disaster relief.
It's as if Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren and Bill O'Reilly are living in a parallel world -- one that somehow wasn't hit by the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, the news network's New York studios are a few blocks from the southern section of Manhattan that is still crippled.
What's going on?
Well, in part, there's Fox's intense obsession with the terrorist attack in Benghazi. Despite the fact that their very own Geraldo Rivera has said that the Republican Party's focus on it seems "insincere" and "desperate," Fox's producers can't seem to book enough chatter about it.
Such an obsession would all be fine, I suppose, if not for the fact that Fox remains the most-watched cable "news" network in the country and that a big piece of our country is still reeling from a catastrophe. As Fox News president Roger Ailes knows better than anyone, its viewers are intensely loyal (Fox's sales pitch to advertisers brags: "Where some surf, others stay.") Many likely rely primarily or solely on the network for a sense of what's happening in the world. My aunt, who lives in Florida, is one such viewer. Fox is always on. Period. She doesn't really consume news beyond it.
So she's missing, as Ann Curry reported last night, that entire sections of Staten Island look eerily like sections of New Orleans did after Katrina. Curry:
There was an off-duty police officer who rushed his family to safety in his attic and then is thought to have been electrocuted. And there was little Diane could do but stand inside her living room holding her 89-year-old mother as the water rose. Her mother drowned. And this afternoon, in a Staten Island marsh, the discovery of the bodies of two boys dragged from their mother's arms from floodwaters. Some residents fear they haven't seen the end of it.
Isn't there a moral obligation at a company like Fox News to use its primetime hours to cover a massive, tragic, still-breaking news story? Other broadcasters -- CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, Bloomberg -- all are. No one expects Fox to follow Walter Cronkite's dictum -- "Our job is only to hold up the mirror -- to tell and show the public what has happened." But even if Hannity, Van Susteren and O'Reilly want to dedicate half their shows to Benghazi, shouldn't the other half be given to Hurricane Sandy? As a friend of mine who watches Fox regularly said: "Heck, even if they want to blame the hurricane on Obama, they still should be covering it." In the last few nights, these shows have been able to find plenty of time for dim banter with Dennis Miller, Clint Eastwood and the ever-peculiar Dick Morris (who predicts Romney will win the popular vote by 5-10 percent), but little or none for the aftermath of the storm.
There are three potential reasons: 1) They feel no obligation to do so because other networks are doing a good enough job. 2) They don't want to cover it because it would take away from their emphasis on Benghazi. 3) Covering it would in some way improve President Obama's chances of reelection on Tuesday. As the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg said yesterday: "Competence is a factor, sometimes hidden, sometimes open, in pretty much every Presidential election... competence is something that the President is showing right now, and Christie is showing it, too."
If not for the fact that people are dead, still trapped in their homes, scrambling to find lost loved ones, and struggling with the reality that entire towns have been scraped from the face of the earth, none of these reasons would seem that unusual for Fox.
But there they are at Fox's headquarters, with ample resources, physically in the epicenter of the disaster, trying to keep the flames of the Benghazi story alive so that they can keep roasting rumors around it.
It's shameful, really.
Even if they never mention anything positive about Obama or how state and federal officials seem to be working well together, they should be relentlessly covering the tragedy.
They may not owe it to news junkies like me, who surf a lot. But they certainly owe it to the millions of families whose lives have been forever changed by the storm, and to my aunt in Florida and millions of Fox viewers like her who are otherwise being left, in the middle of primetime, in the dark.