Dr. Gupta calling and practicing his calling

Dateline: Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  January 14, 2010.  A few television reporters had reached Haiti, now just two days after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the heart of Port-au-Prince.  Many reporters shamelessly touted that  they were “first” to get there (how many can be first?).  There were a few grizzled professional journalists who were “story first, me second.”  But the work of CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta brought journalism to a remarkably high level, perhaps because it was more than the act of observing.  It was the act of doing.  In the video below, you see the incredible metamorphosis of Dr. Gupta from reporter only to reporter / physician.

Despite the tragedy of the situation, Dr. Gupta’s piece thrilled me.  Dr. Gupta has the skills, the empathy, and the presence to show what human beings can be like at our finest.  There was nothing plastic about him; he was in front of the camera but not performing for it.  He didn’t get the ratings of the Super Bowl ads, but unlike the ads, he showed us what we could be rather than what we’re tempted to be.

But to paraphrase the great philosopher B.B. King a few days later, “The thrill was gone.”  Naively, I assumed that just about everyone saw this clip of Dr. Gupta.  As I spoke to more and more people, particularly teenagers, I found that television news is about as remote to them as Haiti.  Perhaps television news should be an afterthought; with the exception of PBS and a few other outlets, tv news reporting has earned that lowly status.  And to their credit, some of the teenagers were listening to NPR, but most seemed to just be getting blips from internet clearinghouses.

It’s odd to use the terms “good fortune” and” tragedy” together, but baby boomers had the good fortune to experience the power of live television repeatedly because it was really the only show in town when tragedy struck.  From the assassination of President Kennedy to the Challenger explosion, broadcast news was where you went when “real breaking news” happened (maybe once or twice a year).

A story is usually real until the media gives it a tag line; then things begin to deteriorate.  Dr. Gupta’s piece came after the tag lines had been written and the melodramatic music was playing.  But it cut through the chaff and showed us what real broadcast journalism and real engagement in a story can be.  I only wish more people had seen it.