Phoning In Mumbai Coverage?

I’ve written before about MSNBC being “The Place For,” among other things, “Disturbing Video.” If there’s “video,” and it’s “disturbing,” it will be served to MSNBC viewers as a news story (such as, “Baby Launched Into Air”).

Last week emerged a news story of global significance complete with, yes, “disturbing video.” TV Barn’s Aaron Barhart did a spot check of the cable news channels at 6pm on November 28th (“Day 3 of the Mumbai Attacks,” Barnhart notes) and found CNN reporting live from the scene outside the Taj Mahal hotel (by phone), Fox News reporting on the Brooklyn couple killed in the attacks, and MSNBC…. airing a pre-taped episode of Caught on Camera (“Caught on camera, on the edge of death. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to stare death in the face? Well, we are going to show you. The situations are dire, the people are real, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and they’re all Caught on Camera. It’s some of the most dramatic video you’ll ever see.”)

The video was “disturbing” — or at least, “dramatic” — but it was also old and irrelevant. Cable viewers casually clicking around would have been excused for assuming the fire and chaos they saw on MSNBC at 6pm Friday night was, you know, live and from Mumbai. (It was Hong Kong. Circa 1996. “Worst high-rise fire in the country’s history.” )

MSNBC flunked Barnhart’s surprise bunk inspection.

UPDATE: I see that Barnhart’s spot check was inspired by David Zurawick, the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, who, last Wednesday night (that would have been “Day 1 of Mumbai Attacks”) blasted MSNBC’s treatment of the unfolding story in India, lamenting what he called the lack of “resources or will” at MSNBC to cover that unfolding story (and by “cover” Zurawick means on-the-ground reporting and sticking with the story, rather than a brief update and then back to regularly scheduled punditry). Zurawick later expanded on those thoughts, writing that he is “surprised at how many readers want to defend MSNBC for leaving Mumbai for fun and games with Keith [Olbermann] and Rachel [Maddow] after 10 minutes at the top of each prime-time hour that they control. To me, that’s a loss.” He calls MSNBC the “used-to-be-news channel.”

For continuous breaking news coverage of an event like the Mumbai attacks (and, there are pitfalls in non-stop, flood-the-zone coverage of a still-unfolding situation, like, say, the temptation to speculate once you tire of re-airing the same snatches of disturbing video and repeating the same few bits of solid information), I’m not sure MSNBC was ever where I thought to turn — even before it began to put many of its eggs in the Olbermann and Maddow baskets.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.