The most striking image from the California earthquake was of elemental opposites: water gushing from a broken main juxtaposed with a curtain of flames from a ruptured gas line.
That image was one on which all the networks fixed eventually. But NBC was the decisively superior news operation in the hours immediately following the disaster. All the networks relied to an unprecedented degree on unedited news feeds from their L.A. affiliates. But KNBC consistently found the most telling, dramatic images.
The day’s individual star, however, was Connie Chung, who shared the CBS afternoon shift with Harry Smith. When Chung was promoted to anchor last year, some critics opined that CBS would regret the decision the first time Chung had to extemporize while anchoring a breaking story. Yet during this baptism of fire, Chung was efficient and knowledgeable (she was familiar with the stricken region from her years at KCBS in Los Angeles).
By the evening news, Dan Rather, in a demonstration of hubris overcoming perspective, was urging viewers to slay with CBS for “the best coverage of the California earthquake.” But by that time—and through all the routine, hastily assembled prime-time and late-night news specials—the networks were in standard mop-up/ summary mode, and there was nothing to recommend one over the other.