Neither TV nor candidates have script for 'the big story'

Last update: September 1, 2008 - 11:08 PM

Matt Frei shouldn't be here. As the main anchor for BBC's "World News America," he's supposed to be in New Orleans, standing on some barren French Quarter street, dodging debris, getting drenched and praying that the wind won't sweep him up and send him crashing into Al Roker.

But Frei opted to stay put in St. Paul at the Republican National Convention, even as his competitors headed south to broadcast from the eye of the storm, a tradition popularized by Dan (Hurricane) Rather.

"The fact that other journalists are going down there isn't a compelling enough reason to go," said Frei, sipping coffee in the media trailer park, a complex as makeshift and staid as a FEMA campground. "Unless the levees break, everyone is going to come back. The hurricane itself is not that much of a story."

Frei said he'll change his plans if the flood walls come tumblin' down, but until then, he's committed to focusing on the convention, even in its abbreviated format.

It's a bold, and some may say irresponsible, choice, but coverage throughout the day suggested that the Hurricane Gustav story was best told by high-tech weather centers, not millionaire TV personalties proving they're tough enough to withstand Mother Nature's wrath.

If the storm doesn't become Katrina, The Sequel, many of the top media folks are missing what's shaping up to be a very newsworthy convention -- even if it's for reasons the brightest pundits couldn't have predicted.

"At the moment, it's an empty convention, but it's not a failed convention," said Frei, who presides over a whip-smart newcast at 7 and 10 p.m. weekdays on BBC America. "Right now, we've seen that John McCain can think on his feet and we've got the story on the Palin pregnancy. It's a drama full of surprises."

Tom Hauser, chief political reporter for KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities, said this one is shaping up to be the most interesting of the six political conventions he has covered.

"It's more exciting than usual, because everything is going off-script," he said.

Hauser's take may have a lot to do with his astute knowledge of politics, but it could also be influenced by the fact that his ABC affiliate station has invested a princely sum to covering this showcase event. KSTP and KMSP, the local Fox affiliate, ponied up for skybox booths, and it's unlikely either outfit will get a discount just because the convention had an abbreviated session.

"It's like you're the Vikings at training camp, getting ready for the big game and then being told at the last minute that you can't play," said KMSP anchor Jeff Passolt. "We want to play."

The major players found themselves juggling both stories, with a heavy emphasis on the storm. ABC, NBC and CBS' hour of prime-time coverage, originally intended for convention highlights, became hurricane specials with nuggets from St. Paul.

Over at Fox News headquarters, a tent across from the Xcel Center that looks like the lair of a supercool James Bond villain, crews scrambled to adapt to the changing news, adding big-screen weather monitors and transforming an online strategy room into a second set for breaking news from the Gulf Coast.

Jay Wallace, Fox's vice president of the news and editorial product, said it was quite a strange day, especially after the hustle and hubbub that accompanied the Democratic bash.

"Our people are coming off of 16- and 17-hour work days and everybody is ready to do it again," he said. "But we've kind of had to stop." It's the kind of break no one expected or wanted, but when it's over all the high-profile anchors should be back in town, except the ones who catch a cold from standing out in the rain.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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