TV, Web shine with sound, keen coverage

Television loves ritual and pageantry. And Tuesday, the medium absolutely soared on the feast of both, found in the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

TV and its small-screen online cousins have never provided more or better coverage of an inauguration -- John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan included. Part of that, of course, involves the simple fact that thanks to new media there are more viewing options than ever.

But beyond that, there were more diverse voices than ever on the airwaves and Internet, and more astute producers and anchors in traditional media who knew when to step back from their own chatter to let the soul-stirring imagery and joyful calls of the crowds speak for themselves.

Most prominent among the new voices for this inauguration were BET and TV One, cable channels pitched to African-American audiences.

On the night of Obama's election and historic late-night speech in Chicago's Grant Park, both came under criticism for commentary that sounded more like cheerleading than journalism to some.

There was some of that Tuesday with author Hill Harper, who worked for Obama's election, serving as a lead correspondent for BET.

"I'm just so full of emotion," he told viewers in his first report. "You can't feel the cold because your soul is so warm. ... This is our moment."

But to his credit, Harper was totally upfront about his bias, and did one of the best jobs of any correspondent or anchor in stating the ultimate appeal of Tuesday's coverage to the Americans who could not see the event in person.

"Many of you couldn't come to Washington," he told viewers. "I just want you to share this historic moment -- getting as close as you can to being here with us."

Radio host Tom Joyner, a guest commentator of TV One, was just as partisan. But it didn't matter because he was clear about his feelings and he offered keen insight into the cultural aspects of the day.

C-SPAN excelled in letting the powerful images and the sounds of the crowd, the bands and the speeches carry the day. Of course, that is what the public service cable channel is known for - providing the least-filtered coverage on TV.

But C-SPAN outdid itself in the superb backstage intimacy it provided at the Capitol of the dignitaries who would share the stage with Obama for the swearing-in. And the microphones were positioned close enough that they picked up such small talk as Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, telling first lady Michelle Obama how "lovely" her daughters looked.

Some of the network and cable anchors such as CBS' Katie Couric and CNN's Wolf Blitzer also understood the power of unfiltered images and words.

When Barack and Michelle Obama stepped out of their limousine shortly after 4 p.m. to walk up Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade, Couric stopped speaking altogether in an effort to let viewers experience the wave of excitement from the crowd. She resumed only when the president and first lady returned to the limousine.

By and large, cable and network TV provided solid coverage of the journalistic aspects of the day, such as when Senator Ted Kennedy, who suffers from brain cancer, collapsed at the inaugural luncheon. It was one of the few unscripted moments in a religiously scripted day of national ceremony.

There was more than enough new media and technology to be impressed with. CNN.com and Microsoft, for example, used new technology to build a 3-D collage from thousands of images that citizens in the gallery and on the National Mall shot with their own cameras at the moment Obama became president.

But for TV, the day was not about journalism or technology as much as nationalism, ritual, tribalism and mythology.

The story line was an ancient one: that of the hero quest. And what TV allowed tens of millions of viewers to witness Tuesday was the moment of transformation when Obama morphed into the one person on whom an entire nation was pinning its best hopes in a time of fear and tumult.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun