I went to church on CNN Saturday, and it was one of the most powerful, uplifting and spiritual experiences I've had in years. Yes, watching six hours of cable TV coverage of Whitney Houston's funeral was a spiritual experience, and I am not using that word carelessly. It was profound and elevating, and the way in which media bring us together for such experiences makes up for one hell of a lot of cable TV's daily sins.
CNN certainly wasn't the only cable channel with wall-to-wall coverage. BET was on even earlier with its package, and everyone from E! to TVOne, MSNBC and Fox News was at New Hope Baptist Church, the Newark congregation that Houston and her celebrated gospel family called home.
But CNN won me early on with its opening images especially a live shot, which featured the old inner city church and and several of the blocks of stark, urban turf on which it sits. The shot included a grimy building that looked abandoned standing alongside the church and the kind of streets referred to as "gritty" when used to describe certain hardcore parts of Baltimore. Such streets are East Coast, inner city and will never look bright and shiny no matter how many camera lights are turned on them. Seeing them right off the bat helped ground me in a real sense of where Houston's journey began.
The exterior shot of the church might have been a pool shot for all I know. I saw a Reuters tag in the upper right hand corner of some of CNN's outside-the-church shots at certain points.
But the church shot filled only one part of the divided CNN screen. On another portion, CNN was showing live coverage of a choir of fifth graders in the neighborhood singing "The Greatest Love of All."
Great interface. The sweet, hopeful voices of the children suggested the legacy of inspiration and empowerment that Houston's recorded work leaves behind. Having those kids onscreen at the opening was a superb call -- all praise to the CNN producer(s) who made it. And more praise for the CNN producer(s) who put together the montage of still photographs of Houston that opened formal coverage at 11 a.m. -- a visual elegy.
But I don't want to make this a traditional media performance review -- saying this channel did this well, while that one sucked. Or, man, was this reporter great.
I will say this about CNN's anchor team of Soledad O'Brien and Piers Morgan: O'Brien was as good as I expected her to be, and Morgan was a semi-pleasant surprise. By that, I mean he wasn't as out-of-it as I expected him to be, and, in fact, he showed something actually approaching what I would call authenticity in his response to the dramatic moment when pall bearers lifted Houston's gold casket on their shoulders and started to exit as Houston's voice boomed through the church singing her anthem, "I Will Always Love You."
Much praise to Don Lemon, who served as CNN's street reporter, for hustling after the ceremony to get the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others who were in the church in an attempt to nail down what happened when Bobby Brown arrived with an entourage and found out he could not be accommodated in the front row with the family. There were conflicting reports, but Lemon managed to nail down that Brown went up to Houston's coffin and then quickly left before the service was properly underway.
With the media today, particularly the online world and cable TV, being the low-down snark pits they are, Brown's narrative is the one that will probably get the most play this weekend. So, for all its fine coverage of the event as ritual, CNN could have looked bad if Lemon hadn't worked hard to get what he could as people were leaving the church -- particularly with Brown's early exit all over social media during the ceremony.
But no media performance came near the majesty and power of the church ceremony itself, and the way you cover something like that is to just point the cameras at the event, and get out of the way.
I am not going to recount every one of the half dozen or so absolutely inspired moments during the four-hour ceremony. But I will say this, go to YouTube and try to find video of the Rev. Donnie McClurkin singing "Stand," a song he performed at the request of Houston's family, according to Dionne Warwick, who introduced each of the speakers and performers.
The Rev. McClurkin took the deep emotion that members of the congregation brought to the church and stirred it into brew of fiery transcendence that suggested the kind of fierce strength and force of will that it took for Houston to climb to the heights she reached in popular culture. McClurkin's performance defined inspirational Saturday.
It wasn't the only one. The Winans gospel family, Houston's self-described second family, dazzled in multiple performances, including the official eulogy delivered and sung to the heavens by the Rev. Marvin Winans.
As for words without music, check out actor Kevin Costner's backstage stories about "The Bodyguard." He shared a moment of truth with the congregation about the studio wanting a white leading lady rather than Houston. It was so real and so far into the realm of stuff we don't talk about in public that even this star-studded, show-biz audience didn't know how to react at first.
Good for Costner giving us a glimpse of what Whitney Houston had to overcome in rising up out of Newark and shining as bright as she did -- even if it was for too short a time.
And good for all the media that allowed millions of us to bear witness and participate so deeply in this profound ritual of remembrance and farewell.
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