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HARPER: Network ‘Bigfoots’ stomp on local coverage

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The tornado in Oklahoma provides a classic example of how national television network news operates, depending on local reporters and camera operators until the big guns arrive to take over.

Moore, Okla., is about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City, where every network has a local station, known as an affiliate, whose reporters headed immediately to the site after the twister struck.

"NBC Nightly News," the top-rated news program, reported last week that between 35 million and 40 million people stood in a dangerous path for tornadoes. After the storm touched down Monday, NBC had a reporter who was stuck in traffic outside of Moore. Meanwhile, the affiliate, KFOR-TV, had a helicopter providing visual coverage of devastation on the ground, so Brian Williams, the NBC anchor, had something to talk about.

On Tuesday, the network anchors rolled into town — an event we used to refer as the arrival of Bigfoot. Why this happens on almost every major story has puzzled me for years. In the newspaper business, it would be absurd for David Jackson, the executive editor of The Washington Times, to head to Oklahoma to cover the story. He and other editors depend on reporters based in the area. But presence and performance have often supplanted substance in the world of television.

Simply put, local reporters understand the story, have the sources and know the territory.

If I were the executive producer of a national broadcast, I would let the local reporters tell the story. But news executives usually think the local reporters lack polish and gravitas. Television news has also often emphasized polish over information.

I remember a conversation with Peter Jennings, the late anchor of "ABC World News." He wanted to anchor the show out of Lebanon where a terrorist group had hijacked a TWA aircraft with hostages.

I told him I thought his arrival would disrupt our coverage. I headed a team of 20 people on the ground already; I didn't want to worry about the logistics, which include an entire production team and arrangements that have little to do with covering the news. Mr. Jennings stayed in New York; our team's coverage was nominated for five Emmy Awards.

Anchors need to stay home in New York to do what they should do best, conducting a symphony of news from local and network correspondents rather than stepping on the toes of those who are out there actually doing the reporting.

The notion of the on-scene anchor adds little to the coverage. It simply means that a lot of journalists need to stand by to be "live" with the anchor rather than out reporting. Perhaps more important, the news networks need to give more credit to their affiliates and stringers — as most other news organizations already do.

NBC received praise for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. I particularly liked how Mr. Williams stayed in New York — something he didn't do for the Oklahoma story — and left the reporting to others. The final news of the capture of the bomber came from a live broadcast of the NBC Boston affiliate, WHDH-TV. I found it refreshing that NBC depended on the Boston reporters who had far more sources than the network correspondents.

An NBC representative was unavailable for comment.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. He can be reached on Twitter at: @charper51

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