As terrorists descended last week on Mumbai, the financial and entertainment capital of India, the staffs at American TV news organizations scrambled to mobilize resources and personnel, underscoring the effects of deep cuts in foreign news operations.
The dearth of reliable information on U.S. television over the three-day conflict that broke during the Thanksgiving holiday was obvious.
TV news reports lacked precise numbers of targets, attackers, casualties and hostages. Some of the confusion could be attributed to misinformation—or none at all—from Indian authorities overwhelmed by the horrifically coordinated attacks. But the absence of boots-on-the-ground reporting was also apparent.
On the broadcast networks, taped reports were confined to the morning shows on Thursday, arguably the most intense day of the three-day assault. For the rest of the day, networks largely stuck with regular programming.
Despite the existence of state-of-the-art reporting technology such as briefcase-sized satellite phones that make it possible to uplink video reports from anywhere in the world, during the three days of coverage, CNN had virtually the only live shot from Mumbai, a city with a major role to play in the 21st century global economy.
CNN’s Sara Sidner delivered sporadic stand-ups in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, making her the only journalist on U.S. TV reporting from the ground live as the events unfolded.
Meanwhile, sieges wore on at six other locations, including the Oberoi Hotel and the Nariman House, where an American rabbi and his wife were among those killed.
Downsizing Foreign News
Many Western news organizations long ago downsized the number of foreign outposts. But the slump in TV ad revenue and the dire economic forecast coming after a protracted and expensive election season has meant more painful cuts to network budgets, especially for broadcast news divisions with a finite amount of hours in which to amortize costs.
“International news gathering gets more expensive and more complicated,” says Tony Maddox, executive VP and managing director of CNN International. “People are under intense financial pressure. Everyone was looking to cut costs even without this financial crisis. And foreign news coverage is expensive to do and do properly.”
The limit on resources meant the news networks had to hustle people into position to cover Mumbai from vacation or in some cases entirely different continents.
NBC News got London-based correspondent Stephanie Gosk to Mumbai in time for a stand up on Thursday's Nightly News. Celia Hatton, a correspondent for CBS News' affiliate service CBS Newspath, traveled from Beijing.
ABC News’ New Delhi-based correspondent Karen Russo was on holiday in Paris. She flew to Mumbai, while Nick Schifrin, ABC’s reporter based in Islamabad, Pakistan, happened to be in New Delhi, where he lived until recently. He too, boarded a plane for Mumbai. And Dan Harris managed to get to the Indian consulate in New York to secure a visa before they closed on Wednesday night. He was in Mumbai in time to file a piece for World News on Thursday evening.
To ABC's credit, they were the only network to get an anchor -- Harris -- in place.
CNN happened to have a crew on the ground in Mumbai with a satellite truck and the permit required by Indian authorities for international broadcasters wishing to transmit live. The network was in the midst of a week-long series on Mumbai’s status as an international economic center for affiliate Indian network IBN.
On Wednesday afternoon when the three-day stand-off began, Fox News executives made the decision to send two full crews to Mumbai from bureaus in Israel and Europe. They were in the Indian port city by Thursday evening.
The BBC has had a presence in India, a former British colony, for more than half a century. And Karishma Vaswani, a BBC business reporter and anchor based in Mumbai, was on the scene Wednesday afternoon.
The structural challenges were compounded by confusion among the Indian authorities, which executives say led to an information vacuum.
“When the story broke there, there was a lack of definitive information,” says John Stack, VP of newsgathering for Fox News. “But what we did know—that it was an act of terrorism, seemingly aimed at Western people, with a loss of life—those are all the ingredients we needed to know to deploy our own resources to the story.”
The CNN crew working on their Mumbai finance story was staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel. They were returning to the hotel on Wednesday afternoon when they were alerted to the terror attacks by the sight of Indian police taking up positions outside their hotel. At that point, the Indian authorities told the CNN crew the violence was attributed to gangs, not terrorists.
As TV news professionals made their ways to the story, viewers who had tuned to cable news networks were mostly treated to an endless loop of taped scenes of terror and aftermath recorded earlier and aired continuously with little context.
Without live video, the networks relied on live telephone interviews unrelated to the taped packages, which featured such sources as a Columbia University graduate student who happened to be somewhere in Mumbai and a businessman at the airport. Neither was at a location near a terrorist target.
CNN's permit to broadcast live ran out on Friday and was not renewed by the Indian government. But the lack of official permits does not explain the lack of live video.
“When there is an emergency such as what happened in Mumbai, it’s important to get our material out as quickly as possible,” says Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage at ABC. “And if there are consequences to that we certainly would deal with them after the fact.”
By Friday evening, when Indian authorities had finally rooted out the last of the terrorists, CNN and Fox News offered coverage and analysis while MSNBC curiously stuck with regularly scheduled news documentaries, including Witness to Crime.
Holiday Programming Decisions
Aside from budget constraints, another factor in the networks’ flat-footed response was the long Thanksgiving holiday.
“Converging on this story was the fact that it was during perhaps the most unique and thorough American holiday of the calendar year,” says Fox News’ Stack.
Broadcast networks were loath to intrude on the feel-good Thanksgiving Day programming for significant reporting on a terrorist attack in another country.
So as Americans viewers were preparing for their Thanksgiving feasts, NBC’s Today co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira presided over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving and the Macy’s parade is the Macy’s parade,” observes Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC World News America. “But there was something slightly diffident about that being pretty much all you could find on American TV on Thursday morning.”
Hartman is a broadcast news veteran having spent many years at CBS News, most recently as executive producer of Evening News With Katie Couric. For the BBC’s networks here and abroad, Asia is a major priority.
“The BBC has long had very considerable news gathering resources there,” adds Hartman. “We have a very big audience in India for BBC World. So we have very significant and long-standing news gathering relationships there.”
CNN too has “a very sizable presence in New Delhi,” Maddox says. “It is one of our bigger international bureaus. In the past few months, we’ve opened up a Mumbai operation which is part of our content ownership plan because [Mumbai] is one of the places we identified as the economic powerhouse of India.”
Currently, CNN has a crew of 21 in Mumbai and many of them are likely to remain in place as the investigation into the attacks continues, says Maddox.