As previously mentioned, all three nightly newscasts originated live from the scene of California's devastating forest fires tonight as Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson all gave live (or mostly live) and detailed reports from the afflicted region. Couric compared it to a "war zone" and "a living hell," saying that Lake Arrowhead region looked like "a smoky ghost town." Gibson ran through the litany of acres lost and people evacuated, and declared: "This is bad and it's going to continue to be bad."
All three broadcasts obviously featured seriously compelling footage, but CBS's opening was by far the most mesmerizing, featuring shot after dramatic shot of raging orange flames cut with embracing, weeping homeowners, the soot-rimmed eyes of a firefighter, and Couric in a helicopter, wind whipping through her hair, with Couric narrating over. Both Gibson and Couric opened with taped segments — Couric on a hillside and Gibson dramatically from a helicopter, his voice intoning "Good Evening" filtered through a special headset mike, before both of them were revealed in their liveshots. Williams, meanwhile, started straight into the broadcast from amid the ruins, walking his viewers through the being-there experience in a long tracking shot at the top, including explaining the face mask around his neck to guard against breathing in the smoky, ash-filled air ("all times we're not on
the air we have to put them on") and bending down to show viewers a Mazda wheelcover that had melted and then re-solidifid, puddle-shaped. Said Williams: "The ground is still hot." Both Couric and Gibson reported from helicopter, while on NBC Lester Holt did that duty. NBC eschewed a name for the broadcast, and any sort of accompanying graphic; CBS was "Firestorm In California" (with a motif that repeated throughout the broadcast) and ABC's was "California Burning" (with the award for cheesiest, most tabloid-y graphic; even though at one point on CBS ran the words "Fighting The Beast ").
But these are quibbles. These were three excellent broadcasts, great examples of tight, effective news coverage and reminders of where the nightly news broadcasts can shine. Cable reports the news as it unfolds, but with events like this, the day of processing information and pulling it together in context really shows. Meanwhile, no one can call these anchors "newsreaders" here; there were obviously no teleprompters on hand (particularly not for Williams in that opener, and who would anchor from a different spot with each new segment). Moreover, for extended coverage like this there a whole lot of facts and figures to dispatch, which was done extremely effectively by each anchor (and also, consecutively: All the anchors updated live as the broadcasts moved west). Couric in particular struck me as having done a terrific job; her script really popped, and tonight she led a great broadcast. The field flatters her enormously (far, far more than the studio). Williams, too, is known for excelling in the field (in Howard Kurtz's book Reality Show, he notes that the Nightly staff dubbed him "Inside Brian" or "Outside Brian" accordingly). It's the opposite with Gibson — not that the field is unflattering, but there seems nary a distinction: Inside Gibson and Outside Gibson are one.
Each broadcast included reporting from Quaalcom Stadium, where suddenly homeless evacuees were gathering — bringing back inevitable memories of Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome. Katrina has become a big part of this story, as a frame of reference in terms of scope and damage, but also in terms of the response: by local authorities, by FEMA, and by the President who will visit the region Thursday (in a move that is apparently meant to explicitly make this the "anti-Katrina," according to the NYT). On "Countdown," Keith Olbermann asked Williams about the inevitable Katrina comparisons:
OLBERMANN: Are the comparisons in scale and scope between this and Katrina valid or are they exaggerations?
WILLIAMS: You know, the figure I'm using on "Nightly News" tonight - the Associated Press, just before our first feed of the broadcast got off the air issued that new figure - 950, 960 thousand* evacuees. That puts this in a "SuperKatrina" category well beyond Katrina - it also makes this the largest single peacetime movement of Americans since the civil war. So that should tell you the scale. You've got just shy of a million Californians on the move, people taking them in - to say nothing of temporary housing - what's going to replace what's behind us here? These houses aren't coming back.
There are differences between this still-happening-in-real-time disaster and Katrina, but the biggest one is the still mercifully low death toll (still at two at this point, which Williams, a former volunteer firefighter, called "unbelievable"). The evacuations have proceeded largely successfully; law enforcement has things basically under control; the residents of various affected suburban areas have been patient about regaining access to whatever remains of their homes; there have been no incidents of looting. There is no doubt that the disaster response is much better, and some of that has to be the lessons of Katrina — but some, too, has got to be attributable that this is happening in a wealthy, politically central state and is affecting largely affluent areas.There will no doubt be greater analysis of all this in the coming days as the fallout becomes clearer and people start quite literally sifting through what's left .
A note on the Santa Ana winds, the weather patterns driving these fires which on Olbermann Williams called "bizarre": "These Santa Anas really reverse Mother Nature...the weather goes the wrong way. And [experts] think tomorrow we're gonna get some moderation in the wind — but, remember, today's humidity was between 10 and 15% — it's so arid you can feel the wind pulling the moisture out of your skin."
Meanwhile, on Couric's broadcast, ominous words from a fireman: "You won't see a Santa Ana fire come down on you until it's too late."