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TV Networks Rig Reunions for Quake Survivors -- and Ratings?

Mar 16, 2011 – 6:53 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

With the scale of Japan's quake and tsunami devastation so large, U.S. television networks are struggling to boil the story down into human terms. TV networks have staged reunions between missing relatives in Japan, providing a rare glimpse of good news amid all the reports of towns destroyed, radiation looming and 10,000 dead.

But as is the case whenever reporters become the news story themselves, there's been a backlash. Some viewers are criticizing TV networks for orchestrating reunions, perhaps to boost TV ratings rather than to simply do a good deed.

The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo says it has no reports so far of Americans dead or wounded in the quake and its tsunami aftermath. But some Americans were among the thousands missing in the first few days after disaster struck, and U.S. TV networks helped find some of them.

On Monday, CNN reporter Soledad O'Brien reunited a 25-year-old American teacher living in Japan, Paul Fales, with his father on the phone from Michigan. Fales had been unaccounted for since the tsunami hit. CNN ran a huge banner headline, "Breaking News: American Located in Japan," across the screen during the live interview.

But the encounter was so awkward, with Fales visibly uncomfortable and stumbling over his words, that some YouTube viewers accused CNN of putting the traumatized survivor on the spot. O'Brien prodded Fales at one point to look into the camera, and urged his father on the line to express more emotion.

"How worried were you, when you would see pictures, knowing that this was where your son's small apartment was?" O'Brien implored.

"Very worried," father Peter Fales responded, followed by a long silence.

The clip was posted on YouTube, where viewers teased CNN about the awkward interview.

"CNN locates one American alive and well in Japan, except he's an idiot," wrote one YouTube viewer. Others accused criticized the "anxious mediation of CNN personalities."

Tsunami Relief: Network for Good

NBC News correspondent Ann Curry came under similar criticism earlier this week, after reuniting another U.S. English teacher in Japan, Canon Purdy, with her sister in California. Purdy's sister, Megan Walsh, sent Curry a tweet on Sunday, asking her to help find her sister in the Japanese town of Minamisanriku. Curry went to the town and found Purdy, then had the cameras rolling when the two sisters were reunited in a telephone call.

"She ONLY did it cause the cameras were rolling," one reader wrote in response to a Huffington Post story about Curry's TV piece.

"I would have a lot more respect for Ms. Curry if she had simply DONE the good deed, rather than doing the good deed and then creating a nationally broadcast news story about how she did a good deed," another reader wrote. "She helped a woman make a phone call, and in return she earned herself and her employers several millions of dollars' worth of viewer goodwill."

Other readers -- including friends of Purdy -- took to the Web to defend Curry's ethics and thank her for finding their friend. "Of course" the NBC report was a "fluff piece" intended to boost "ratings or whatever," Rachel Robles, a friend of Purdy's, wrote on The Huffington Post. But, she said, "we could care less! ... Thank you Ann Curry for finding my friend!!!!"

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In at least one case, such tearful reunions involved a TV correspondent herself. CBS News correspondent Lucy Craft was reunited with her son, who goes to boarding school in tsunami-ravaged northern Japan. CBS News broadcast a clip of them running toward each other and hugging outside a Tokyo hotel, during the closing credits of the "CBS Evening News" on Tuesday.

"I'm so glad you're here!" Craft tells her son, kissing him. Neither of them look at the camera. "Are you hungry? Are you OK? No scratches?" she asks in a motherly tone, as her teenage son waves her off.
Filed under: World, AOL Original, Japan Disaster
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