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News networks cover quake with earthshaking urgency

August 23, 2011 |  1:42 pm

Although the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck northern Virgina on Tuesday afternoon caused little apparent damage, that didn't stop television networks from going into all-out breaking-news mode shortly after the temblor hit.

ABC, CBS and NBC all interrupted daytime programming, a move generally meant for cataclysmic events. (The storming of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's compound earlier in the day did not merit an interruption.)

The cable-news networks went a step further. CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, which had been in heavy Libya coverage for much of the afternoon, shifted to full-on earthquake mode, interviewing experts and showing evacuations.

The decision created something of an odd spectacle: reports of a major disaster that lacked any disaster images.

On CNN, the Washington-based Wolf Blitzer did a stand-up in front of, well, a number of people standing up. MSNBC showed aerial shots of the New York skyline and kept a camera trained on the Washington Monument, while also offering up reports about a burst pipe at the Pentagon that had caused...standing water.

(Incidentally, the coverage  seemed odd to anyone on the the East Coast who hails from or lives in Los Angeles, such as this blogger, amused by the networks' breathlessness over an earthquake that, if it struck in the Southland, would mostly cause an eye roll.)

About 90 minutes after the earthquake hit, CNN and MSNBC were still running with the story, talking about such incidents as nuclear power-plant evacuations, even though the moves seemed only precautionary. Fox News by that point had cut back to Libya, with anchor Shepard Smith talking to correspondents on the ground about developments in the North African country; Smith even noted wrly that "the East Coast appears to be, for reasons unknown, in a bit of a freak-out mode." (Fox News did, however, evacuate its Washington, D.C., bureau and alert reporters to the same.)

All this comes as MSNBC was previously criticized for being slow to cover the Libya developments this past weekend, prompting the network to release a statement.

But Libya and the earthquake ensured that one news development that might have otherwise dominated a slow late-August day remained nowhere in site. Yes, right now, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are really grateful for the Earth's seismic hiccup.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: People stand outside the Javits federal building in New York after an evacuation. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images