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CNN stumbles against TV’s instant 24/7 rivals in race to cover Boston Marathon tragedy

Lani Dietz right tends bar Friday Granary Tavern Bostas news was shown TV screen.  AP/Elise Amendola)

Lani Dietz, right, tends bar Friday at the Granary Tavern in Boston as the news was shown on a TV screen. AP/Elise Amendola)

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Updated: May 22, 2013 7:13AM



With virtual round-the-clock coverage of the most popular show on television Friday — “Manhunt” — broadcast networks beat cable news at its own game.

ABC, CBS and NBC turned into de facto 24-hour news networks, preempting most of Friday’s regular programming to chronicle the unfolding story of the search for surviving Boston bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The mostly solid, comprehensive coverage made the unraveling at rudderless CNN — a traditional go-to spot for breaking news — all the more apparent. The cable news net’s reportage took turns Friday alternating between confusion and sheepishness, the latter undoubtedly a reaction to the public shaming it endured earlier in the week after mistakenly stating that a “dark-skinned” male had been arrested.

Factual errors aside, CNN’s on-air personalities often floundered during Friday’s drama. Chris Cuomo became the butt of jokes on social media after asking a terrorism expert how someone could be a good and bad person at the same time. National correspondent Susan Candiotti, who seemed to be frequently caught off guard, described the desolate, cordoned-off streets of Watertown to look “as though a bomb had dropped somewhere.” Wolf Blitzer was, well, Wolf Blitzer. Around 7 p.m., a viewer tweeted: “If you play ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ over CNN’s current coverage you’ll still probably get more insight into what’s happening.”

That’s not to say other networks — both cable and broadcast — didn’t get things wrong, didn’t take a ride on the slippery slope of speculation, or didn’t plain screw up, like when NBC dipped into a New England Cable News feed just in time to hear a reporter confess, “I don’t know s—t.” But it was CNN, a network in flux with a new boss, Jeff Zucker, that struggled the most throughout the week.

Despite those problems, CNN saw a massive jump in total viewers during the Boston coverage. It averaged an audience of 1.05 million (much higher than that in primetime) over the four days that started with Monday’s bombing. That’s a 194 percent increase over the same time period the week before. The average number of Fox News’ viewers jumped 48 percent, to 1.64 million, while MSNBC drew 514,000 for an increase of 37 percent.

During Friday’s drama that drew viewers in droves, caution — or at least the appearance of it — seemed to be the word of the day as networks tried to avoid becoming fodder for Jon Stewart. Some broadcast their footage with a five-second delay in case things turned gruesome, like they did in September when Fox News inadvertently showed a car-jacker’s suicide on live TV.

Anchors and correspondents repeatedly couched reports with caveats about information being unconfirmed. NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd abruptly cut off an analyst as he started to talk about an Amazon “wish list” belonging to someone with the same name as one of the suspects. Politico’s Dylan Byers noted that Todd may have saved MSNBC from a blunder along the lines of Brian Ross’ report for ABC last summer, when Ross mistakenly suggested the Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect might have had connections to the Tea Party based on a sole website.

Scott Pelley on CBS and ABC’s Diane Sawyer, who scored an informative interview with a neighbor of the owner of the boat Dzhokhar hid in, disseminated news of the manhunt responsibly and with restraint. The same can be said for NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, who ably helmed a long morning shift Friday for “Today” without the help of Matt Lauer, who was in Texas. The biggest kudos go to NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams, who grew increasingly lonely for a while there Wednesday while sticking to his (correct) stance that no arrests had been made.

Unlike the Boston Marathon, covering heater stories in today’s instantaneous, 24-hour news environment is a flat out sprint. No network made it to the finish line without tipping over at least a few hurdles. But CNN showed us it needs to get in shape, fast.



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