Viewers watching cable TV coverage out of Ferguson Monday night witnessed a remarkable split-screen moment.
Just as President Obama was shown live from the White House saying that throwing bottles and smashing windows were not the way citizens should respond to a grand jury decision not to indict the white police officer who fatally shot a black teen in August, viewers saw bottles, tear gas and flash bangs starting to fly through the streets of Ferguson. Cameras zeroed in on protesters smashing windows on a police car as they rocked it back and forth.
As Obama left the podium and disappeared from his half of the screen, the Ferguson half of the screen showed the police car on fire, law enforcement officers advancing on protesters and the sky lit by plumes of smoke and flames.
The images and the violence worsened during the night with store windows smashed, buildings looted and businesses set on fire with flames shooting high into the air. Gunshots were heard repeatedly on the audio.
Fox, CNN and MSNBC were there – all day and night. Give them credit for that, for staying the course.
But just because the cable channels were there, doesn’t mean they all did a great job of covering this deep and disturbing story.
As is often the case, CNN had the most resources with anchors Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon leading a large contingent of reporters and crews on the ground.
The standout for CNN was correspondent Jason Carroll, who seemed to be wherever the action was in Ferguson all night – and consistently told viewers about it in a clear and compelling way.
But all the good reporting by Carroll and others at CNN was seriously compromised by the terrible decision to have political commentator Van Jones on the ground with Lemon.
At 10:23 p.m. (ET) as the violence seriously escalated, Jones cut in on Lemon with, “I just want to say… it's that same thing again: You have a small number of knuckleheads who are out here causing the problems.”
How could Jones possibly know that being essentially in one location on the street?
As subsequent events quickly revealed, the former Obama green-jobs adviser didn’t know it. He wasn’t even close.
The question was: What was Jones, a CNN political analyst from the canceled "Crossfire" show, doing out there on the street in Ferguson in the first place when the need could not have been greater for real, honest, experienced reporters – something CNN has more of than anyone else in TV news?
Jones was so far out of his depth and so far off in his assessment of the actual situation all night that you had to wonder if CNN President Jeff Zucker, or any of his executives, were actually watching the coverage.
It wasn’t until 11:30 p.m. that CNN finally called Jones away from Lemon’s side and took him off the air. That came after he issued a piece of analysis blaming what was happening on the street on the tone of the remarks from the prosecuting attorney and the decision to announce the grand jury’s decision so late in the day. If only it were that ideologically simple.
Some of CNN’s best moments came with Cuomo trying to stand his ground and encouraging his crew to stand it with him as police advanced toward them with flash bangs, smoke bombs and tear gas flying. It gave a concrete, tactile, powerful sense of the chaos that marks such moments of conflict.
Fox had some of the most powerful images of the night when at 10:57 p.m. correspondent Steve Harrigan and his videographer filmed the windows of a McDonald’s being smashed and a liquor store next door being looted after vandals used baseball bats to smash their way in.
It showed in vivid detail that there were more than a “small number of knuckleheads” involved. There were a lot of people bent on doing some damage, and two of them smashed the Fox camera.
Check out the iPhone video Harrigan shot in the video accompanying this piece.
Harrigan and his videographer did great work in getting that close to the action, and they paid a price from looters who apparently didn’t like being photographed. But they showed real resilience in going to smartphone pictures in an effort to help viewers understood what it felt like on the streets of Ferguson Monday.
Their work was so good it made up for the bad choice by Fox in letting Sean Hannity, as hopeless an ideologue as Jones, on the air on such a night.
As for MSNBC, I can only hope there is someone with one shred of journalistic integrity left somewhere in NBC News who will undertake a thorough review of all the channel’s coverage of Ferguson since August. I think what they will see is how horribly wrong the channel has gone to wind up with Chris Hayes on the ground on a story as profound and wide-reaching as this.
I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been Al Sharpton.
Monday night in Ferguson could prove to be a watershed night in American racial history. It was not the time for political advocates masquerading as journalists – something MSNBC sadly has more of than any other channel on television.