- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The nimble news media went into full combat mode within minutes of the earthquake that struck the mid-Atlantic region Tuesday afternoon. News of the 5.8 temblor rocked tales of Col. Moammar Gadhafi and the presidential vacation right off the press radar.

Coverage got urgent and colorful in record time. The quake struck, rocked, jolted and shook the nation’s capital, according to multiple reports from print, broadcast and online news organizations. Social media was buzzing with often alarming 140-character bulletins about evacuations and street crowds that boasted immediacy, but not much substance.

Cable news and talk radio erupted with instant first person accounts from those who ran from the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and other public buildings during the momentous shimmy, which lasted approximately 45 seconds.

After its D.C. bureau on Capitol Hill was evacuated, Fox News Channel immediately made plans to broadcast from the sidewalks outside its offices. But like most Washingtntians, Fox employees were allowed access to their studio by late afternoon.

“Who said August is not a big news month?” observed Fox News anchor Bret Baier.

His fellow news anchors had a wealth of gutsy material to work with - such as reports that the Washington Monument was tilting after the quake.

“It’s an extraordinary and unusual situation,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said. “There are thousands and thousands of stories here, with people wondering about aftershocks, about damage.”

With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorists attack days away, the afternoon rumble and a spate of high-profile evacuations had a distinct effect on Washington residents.

“We had a mix of emotions. Was it a plane crash, a bomb?” an alarmed evacuee from the massive Union Station told CNN. “When we found out it was an earthquake, we were relieved.”

Wags did not overlook the opportunity, with more than one suggesting that the Obama administration longed to blame the earthquake “on the Bush administration.” A few parody “Washington earthquake relief funds” surfaced on Facebook.

For all the drama and high jinks, the events presented a sobering influence on many officials, however. The Radio Television Digital News Association, for example, immediately issued a memo titled “50 Questions You Need To Ask When Preparing Crisis Coverage” to its membership, which includes news directors across the nation.

Cable channels in particular homed in on practical emergency information, exacting technical details and historical perspective from the U.S. Geological Survey and other official sources.

Meanwhile, the extent of Tuesday’s big rumble was felt in New England, Detroit and Atlanta - providing ample opportunity for local reporting, and a few unsympathetic comparisons.

Some reports from the West Coast revealed that residents were less than impressed by East Coast hysteria.

“Now you know what it feels like on the West Coast, East Coast!” said a tweet from a Californian, dutifully reported by the Los Angeles Times.