CNN made two scrupulous decisions before the tragedy in Mumbai. Both illustrating to the nation and the world the capacity of television news to be more than, as Edward R. Murrow put it, "Wires and a Box."
If the other handful of mostly entertainment networks owning America's major conduits of information take notice, perhaps television journalism will not remain an oxymoron and the people's trust in television journalists can be restored.
CNN proved ready for this tragedy by inherently understanding a bureau in India could become a strategically important move and possible open a window for the rest of us to peek through. No other television news corporation had a bureau and a reporter there.
How did CNN figure that out? With Pakistan to the northwest, generally considered to be one of the most dangerous places on the planet, Afghanistan next to Pakistan and Iran and Iraq next door, it did not take remarkable sagacity, but it did take money, and that's why there were no other American television network bureaus there.
Sectarian and political violence surround India, but until Thanksgiving Day, India was considered relatively safe. Relative being the operative word in that sentence.
With Americans invariably following the money, Mumbai's financial markets were appetizers to the main meal many hoped would lead them out of America's depression and back into the glorious world of riches. American CEOs are flocking to Mumbai. That makes them a target.
So, it did not take true genius to anticipate something would eventually explode in or around Mumbai. A journeyman's knowledge of history and topography was all one needed.
The second thing CNN did right came in the form of a scrappy, brilliant, formidable reporter manning the lone bureau in India. Sara Sidner barely flinched when explosions erupted and drunk and angry mobs surrounded her. She lives in India; she knew her stuff. But then, Sara Sidner always had "Game" and a "Send me in coach" attitude.
Sara Sidner sat in the same chair as I for many years. She worked as an anchor on weekends and a reporter on week days. Local news did not fight for her to stay. She had no contract keeping her from walking away -- so she did. She's a rarity in television news today. She did not cover herself in airbrush makeup and flap her eye lashes or purse her dimples for the cameras. She wanted to be a reporter.
Few local corporate television executives notice Sara Sidner qualities these days, so she did what big fish in small ponds do. They either shrink or swim away and grow.
The pond Sara left was crowded with beauty queens toting beauty pageant sashes as resumes. Objectification to reach a goal is not Sara's style. Instead she chose the unknown. She chose to walk away from the comforts of home toward potential terror. She has a reporter's heart and mind, and if she could be cloned, Americans would be better informed and democracy would be safer. She chose to immerse herself in Indian culture while surrounded by countries with itchy trigger-fingers, twisted loyalties and sectarian and political killing fields.
The lump in my throat melted when I saw Sara reporting from Mumbai. I knew her ability to gather information and relate it to viewers, and I also know America cannot avoid another 9/11 without understanding these conflicts.
When tools of television news became helicopters and high definition instead of investigative reports and the corporate cronyism got too much for me, Sara Sidner sent flowers to my home and pleaded with me to return to broadcasting. She wondered how long she could continue. Soon afterward she took the job in India.
A rarity indeed, caring more about reporting than that coveted close up.
Note to the big seven: more bureaus around the world, and more reporters like Sara.
A picture of Sara Sidner: http://www.ibabuzz.com/unscripted/2007/11/21/its-official-sara-sidner-out-at-ktvu-channel-2/