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David Bianculli On Media Coverage Of The Marathon Explosions


This is FRESH AIR and we're talking about what's happening in Boston. With me now is our TV critic David Bianculli. And David, usually when there's breaking news like this you're watching, like, a lot of TVs at a time.


GROSS: Trying to see how different networks are covering it. And you've done this for years. You've done this through many different crises. So how does this past week compare to other crises that you've monitored in the media in terms of the coverage?

BIANCULLI: It's so weird that the thing that I think about is that it's not even I covered professionally but it's one within my lifetime. I think, although it's certainly smaller scale, this reminds me of the Kennedy assassination. You know, we had four days in November. This is already, you know, five days in April. And you have the same sort of thing. It's a crime that took place at a predetermined event along a predetermined route.

And then there was the identification of a suspect, the search for a suspect, a policeman who was killed during the, you know, the search for the suspect. And then we already have, you know, one suspect killed and this story is still going on. There are lots of parallels there.

GROSS: But there's been so much change in the technology since the Kennedy assassination.

BIANCULLI: You're right. You're right. I mean, that's absolutely true. I mean in 1963 with John Kennedy you had Abraham Zapruder who was the one guy who had a little camera that took silent footage and was the only specific record. This time we had authorities asking everybody around the finish line to please send in their images. And you had security cameras which led to the apprehension. And then - or it led to the breaks in the case.

Where once they threw it on television and used television to say here are our two suspects, within 12 hours, you know, look at what happened and what's still happening as we're speaking.

GROSS: So what's some of the best and worst that you've seen of live coverage?

BIANCULLI: The worst is kind of apparent. It's CNN. And you don't have to have, you know, Jon Stewart to make fun of it if you were watching it itself. Anybody can make mistakes in terms of breaking news coverage like this because you are basically doing unfiltered reporting and in the best cases you don't do that.

The biggest problem with news organizations, and CNN was very guilty of this this time, is when you make a mistake is not to admit it immediately, not to back down from it, and not to correct it. There was a long silence after they said that, you know, the wrong, you know, they misidentified a suspect and that he had been apprehended.

And then just sort of let it sit for a long time. There were other news organizations that were pulled into the same thing but CNN, I think, was the most egregious and probably lost the most this time. And then on the other hide, excuse me, on the other sand - on the other side when you have somebody like Pete Williams of MSNBC who is saying no, that's not true, what you're hearing on other places and that turns out to be credible, that helps that individual in that organization.

GROSS: You know, MSNBC is related to NBC and has access to some of NBC's reporters.


GROSS: And NBC, of course, has MSNBC to constantly be giving the news and take advantage of some of its reporters. CBS and ABC don't have an equivalent.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. Well, they sort of made the mistake of giving up real estate in the cable game when they could've gotten it. CBS had CBS Cable early on and could've built it into a news organization. They didn't see the value of that. And ABC tried and really didn't do the same sort of thing. MSNBC was the one that said, no, I think this is something and we'll fight CNN. And that's been going on ever since.

But thinking about the Kennedy assassination, again, that was the introduction to American television of 24 hour news coverage. It had never been done before. And now we expect it. And it sort of - people still, even in the Internet age, we still tune to TV and radio to keep watching things even when there's nothing being advanced.

GROSS: You know, my sense is, because I've been just tuning in. And I just wanted - I want to be there when there is news.


GROSS: I want to have it tuned in when there is news. And I also just like the feeling of feeling connected to people who are thinking about the story and are trying to express, not only what's happening in the news, but how people are feeling.

BIANCULLI: It's soothing and it's reassuring just to be in that community. We're losing the overall TV community, but that's a big part of it. And you do get to see things. Like when the uncle was just speaking within an hour or so of when we're speaking right now, you know, you learn things live.

GROSS: So your obsession and your area of expertise is television. You've been a TV critic your whole adult life. Do you follow the news on Twitter too? Or other social media?

BIANCULLI: I try to go to other social media but I'm not as good at Twitter as I should be in terms of letting these things know. I mean in terms of leading me to another source. I'm still old school enough that I'm looking at a lot of images...

GROSS: What...

BIANCULLI: ...at the same time.

GROSS: And what about on your website? What are you doing?

BIANCULLI: On my website I have people that are doing better things than that for me. You know, we have social media people who can do that sort of thing. But I'll be writing about this on the website later on. But right now it's just the power of television all over again.

GROSS: Well, David, I want to thank you. Before I allow you to go...


GROSS: ...any final thoughts you want to leave us with?

BIANCULLI: Just that I think that even when networks are stupid or reporters are stupid, these days viewers are so smart that they know when to reject bad reporting and to switch to another network. And I just hope you keep doing that. And I hope you're not doing that with me right now.

GROSS: David Bianculli is FRESH AIR's TV critic. Thank you, David, for joining us.

BIANCULLI: All right. Thanks for this.

GROSS: I want to play a little bit of music here. Somebody who's been a favorite at FRESH AIR is the late pianist Dave McKenna, famous for his stride piano playing, his incredible left hand. And for years he was an institution at the Copley Hotel in Boston where he played at the piano bar. And the Copley is right where the bombs went off right near the finish line.

It's an area - I love Boston. I've spent a lot of parts of my summers in Boston staying at all the hotels in that area, including the Copley. So Boston, here's another salute to you from the late - you know, the music of the late Dave McKenna.


GROSS: We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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