Wed, Sep 22, 1999 - Page 8 News List

CNN gets quake coverage wrong

Bo Tedards

Yesterday, after the electricity in my house was restored, the first thing we did was turn on the television to see the earthquake coverage. After switching around all of the local news networks, it occurred to me to take a look at CNN's coverage. After all, that is what my relatives and friends overseas would likely be viewing.

After the opening sequence for the noon bulletin, a "Special Report" headline appeared, and CNN went to its anchor, Michael Holmes, in Atlanta.

Imagine my surprise when the first four words out of Holmes' mouth were "China's president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) ...." I thought, "What? They're not leading with the Taiwan quake?"

But before I could wonder any further, he completed his sentence: Jiang had expressed his concern about the quake! That was how they began their story. Not with Taiwan, even to let the viewers know the basic facts. That came later. The first word was China in a sentence written in a way to mislead outsiders into thinking that Taiwan was part of China. Even at a time of disaster, they couldn't pass up any opportunity to put Taiwan down.

But perhaps CNN was just legitimately highlighting international reaction? Unfortunately, that thesis doesn't hold up, since Bill Clinton's public condolences and the news about the rescue teams coming from the US and Japan were not mentioned once during the entire story. It is extremely difficult to see how the perpetually America-centric CNN missed the Clinton angle, yet managed to put Jiang in the opening sentence.

After buttering up Beijing, the CNN team went on to do the actual story. Here, too, their performance left much to be desired. The team parachuted in from Hong Kong was led by the usually capable Mike Chinoy, who apparently had just arrived ; however, it was very disappointing that they went straight to Taipei, instead to where most of the damage occurred. Arriving at CKS airport, it would have taken him not a minute longer in his car to head south to Taichung rather than north to Taipei.

This was a surely honest but still quite serious mistake. Apparently they were not aware of where the damage was concentrated, despite continuous broadcasting of that information from 2am. And of course, there is the old "Taiwan is just Taipei" mentality, not of course, confined to CNN.

This error was then compounded by poor reporting, which almost exclusively focused on the relatively few disasters in Taipei. Almost comically, they even replayed in full Mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) itemization of the damage to the city, down to how many people were stuck in elevators.

It was not comical that the bulk of the disaster-struck areas were referred to as remote, whose "difficult communications" conveniently covered CNN's ignorance. Of course, some of the worst of the tragedy did occur in isolated interior locales, but the cities of Taichung, Nantou and Chiayi are not exactly primitive, as CNN should have known.

Other errors included the hasty conclusion (obviously inspired by the Turkey quake) in which older buildings were deemed more likely to collapse, despite the fact that most locals had the opposite impression.

At 2pm, CNN broadcast a much different story, deleting the Jiang reference and including an interview with a local journalist. But it retained the misplaced emphasis on Taipei, and added the comment that it was "too early to say" whether there was a "organized response," ten hours after it had commenced.

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