Broadcast Networks Stay Focused on Haiti, Not ‘The Sideshow’ of Late Night

By Gail Shister 

If Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien were to suddenly relocate to Haiti, Steve Capus would need a defibrillator.

Thus far, NBC News chief Capus has been able to sidestep the network’s nasty late-night melodrama to focus on the earthquake disaster in Haiti. Not surprisingly, his embattled boss, Jeff Zucker, backs his play, Capus says.

“Jeff told us to go off and do great work,” says Capus. “I don’t blink at spending the kind of money we need to spend.”

Capus also jumped to Zucker’s defense in a searing piece about the NBC czar’s role in the late-night imbroglio in Sunday’s New York Times (Page 1, no less.) Capus accused the media of overblowing Leno v. O’Brien, given the misery in Haiti.

“The sideshow that is the late-night wars is of no interest to the news division,” Capus tells TVNewser. “It’s a soap opera. Nobody walks around the floors of NBC News talking about it. The magnitude of the Haiti story has had our complete focus.”

NBC anchor Brian Williams recently returned from the scene of devastation, as did CBS’s Katie Couric and ABC’s Diane Sawyer.

Sawyer, for example, began planning her second trip almost immediately, says “World News” executive producer Jon Banner.

As anchor for less than a month, Sawyer’s coverage “exceeded my expectations,” says Banner, who traveled with her for a week, from Kabul to Port-au-Prince.

“Clearly, she is first and foremost a reporter,” Banner adds. “Her abilities in the field are remarkable. She’s also a producer, and has the ability to put together a piece. It’s fascinating to be part of that.”

As he did after Katrina, Williams “is struggling a little bit” in readjusting to New York, according to Capus. “It’s about the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s,’ and feeling guilty about your surroundings.” Still, he’s eager to go back, Capus says.

The ethical issue of journalists getting involved in stories they’re covering has become moot in Haiti.

Physician-correspondents perform life-saving surgery and care for the sick. Reporters share food and water with starving survivors. When witnessing that kind of misery, compassion often trumps objectivity, Capus and Banner agree.

“Ethical dilemmas are fascinating topics to be kicked around in academic hallways,” Capus says, “but when you’re on the ground and the situations hit home, I’m not quite sure what theoretical discussions mean.

“When Nancy Snyderman [NBC’s chief medical editor and a physician] sees the kid with the crushed leg, what would you have her do – keep walking? When caregivers are overwhelmed and people are suffering, Nancy has something to offer. We’re not putting her on camera every time she helps someone.”

Banner seconds the emotion. Dr. Richard Besser, ABC’s senior health and medical editor, helped deliver a baby, among other good deeds, because “he wanted to help these people, not just report on them,” Banner says.

“Being so close to that many people in need takes a toll on your soul. If we have water or food, we want to give some of that over. We know our primary mission is to inform our audience.

“We are not the story in any way, shape or form, but we are human. We are there. We are doing what we can to help.”