Holocaust Museum Gunman vs Miss California

As a former CNN producer, I pay attention to what my former colleagues churn out. Wednesday night’s edition of Anderson Cooper 360 showcased some of the best and worst that the medium can offer.

AC360 coverage of Holocaust Museum gunman James von Brunn began with predictable, unfortunate recitation of von Brunn’s ridiculous views. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but it’s equally true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity: every mention of his wacky beliefs or tease of his website gives comfort and opportunities to recruit similarly disturbed extremists.

The program took a far better turn when it interviewed an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center that actually tracks and fights hate groups. The best guests are doers, not writers. The guest, SPLC Intelligence Report director Mark Potok,  was able to put the museum attack in context, both in terms of von Brunn’s history and recent hate group activities. Potok made the connection between this incident and the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller. A black president in the White House may drive some violent extremists to desperate acts, enabled by easily available firearms.

The other related guests – an FBI agent who once infiltrated the hate groups and von Brunn’s former housemate – offered the irresistible TV lure of having actually met the shooter, but neither had much to say. Tracking them down, particularly the housemate, who seemed to have been landed mid-show, wins big bragging rights for the show and for the assistant producer or booker who uncovered them. It’s a much bigger coup for the show and its personnel than for viewers.

From the heights of the SPLC guest, AC360 tumbled to the depths with its story of Miss California Carrie Prejean being stripped of her crown. Pointlessly reporting this non-story is one thing, but this iteration insulted viewers at several levels. From a strictly journalism point of view, it’s inexcusable that the story failed to show the new Miss California, Tami Farrell, opting for that familiar video of Prejean’s pageant bikini strut. Believe me, as a red-blooded male, I like that bikini strut as much as the next guy. But apparently Anderson Cooper doesn’t, since he complained about running story. That’s the real insult.

On one hand we’re supposed to believe that Anderson Cooper is a hands-on newsman and AC360 is his take on the news of the day. But when it comes to Miss California stories, then AC portrays himself as a typical empty suit anchorman who doesn’t know what’s in the show until he reads it in the teleprompter. The reality is likely between those extremes, but that doesn’t mean AC can have it both ways. If Cooper really didn’t want the Miss California story on his show, it wouldn’t be there and it certainly wouldn’t have been teased throughout the hour. So, AC, please save the crocodile journalism ethics and stand behind your whole show or none of it.

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America’s story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie.

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