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john doyle: television

"Autocratic regimes give me the willies."

Thus spoke the halfwit Geraldo Rivera on Fox News, late on Saturday night. Rivera was discussing the situation in Egypt with Judith Miller, the former New York Times reporter whose coverage of the matter of weapons of mass destruction being in Iraq was later discredited. Although Miller had spent time reporting from Cairo, she didn't have much to say, except the obvious, about Egypt.

Rivera plowed on, eventually putting his hands over his mouth and shouting, "Mubarak, get out." And then announcing, "That's my editorial."

Perhaps Fox News was airing this baloney on the assumption that nobody was watching, it being near 11 p.m. ET on a Saturday. At the same time, over on CNN, anchor Don Lemon was talking to a man named Moawad, an Egyptian living in the United States. The conversation, such as it was, veered into black comedy. Lemon asked, "What brought you here? Was it the situation there? What made you come?" And Moawad replied, "My wife." From there it went like this, Q: "It was your wife?" A: "Yes." Q: "Would you feel safe going back at this point?" Mr. Moawad looked round as if he'd been the victim of a prank. The screens in the studio were showing endless footage of chaos on the streets of Cairo.

Watching TV coverage of the crisis in Egypt over the weekend was not always such a bizarre experience, but it was a bracing reminder of the limitations of TV news at such times. First, the Egyptian government's shutdown of the Internet and other communications methods meant that most TV coverage relied on a limited amount of footage being repeated endlessly. Often, on CBC NN, a reporter was on the phone while footage that was not connected to the report aired. CNN went in for punditry over the weekend, having very limited access to knowledge of what was happening on the ground. Sometimes, they were talking to American tourists in Cairo who peered out the window and described what they saw.

This kind of story flushes out the good, the bad and the stupid in TV news. It's as obvious as a poke in your eye that TV news wants an understandable, familiar narrative to emerge. What's unfolding has to have a story arc, just like a movie. So, the lack of a discernible opposition leader in Egypt flummoxed everybody. TV news producers and reporters long for a straightforward story about an underdog overcoming obstacles and rising to power on a wave of popular support. That wasn't happening.

In this circumstance, with so much blather and confusion, it is with relief that that one turns to BBC World News. It is also with some reluctance - the BBC's status should have long since been transcended by others, but it hasn't. There was Canadian Lyse Doucet on the air from Cairo, speaking calmly, describing what she had seen in the city and then talking to others. She asked clear, helpful questions - "What did you see? Who did you speak with and what did they say?"

While Fox went a bit wacky, at one point using a map of the Middle East which incorrectly located Egypt, and CNN developed an unhealthy obsession with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statements, BBC News stayed shockingly calm. And we watch BBC aware that it isn't going to present a map of the Middle East which places Egypt next door to Iran.

A particularly thorny issue over the weekend was the use of footage of looting. On the one hand, some people on the ground in Cairo were telling reporters and viewers that state-run TV in Egypt was simply showing endless footage of looting and rioting in order to give the impression of dangerous chaos, and on the other hand the same footage turned up on TV here, on both CBC NN and CTV News. As always in TV news, shocking footage triumphs over matters of media manipulation and propaganda.

The most incisive coverage came, of course, from Al Jazeera English, which is easily available in Canada, unlike the U.S. market, where it is rarely offered to cable or satellite customers. Here, anyone can get it at a cost of about $2 a month. This is a situation in which Al Jazeera surges to the fore in coverage - it knows the region better than any other broadcaster and is better staffed there than any other outfit. The seriousness of its journalism stands in startling contrast to what CNN and Fox offer,

Right after Geraldo Rivera did his shouting, and said, "That's my editorial," he laughed. Though it was more of a giggle. Darn funny fella, that halfwit. Darn funny situation, Egypt, isn't it?


Blackstone (APTN, 9 p.m.) is a new, hardnosed Canadian drama set on an Indian reserve that is deliberately presented as a hellhole of corruption, alcoholism and drug abuse. The gist of the drama (it also airs on Showcase, Fridays, 11 p.m.) is the need to clean up the reserve and for the residents to clean up their lives. In charge of this effort is Leona Stoney (Carmen Moore), a drug-abuse counsellor who becomes the reserve leader. The early evidence suggests that while the show is raw and tough-minded, it has a touch too much earnestness. By far the most compelling character is the utterly ruthless, manipulative chief Andy Fraser, played with great gusto by Eric Schweig. He's scarier than all the dysfunction among the people he leads and cheats.

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