Fox News stars like Tucker Carlson questioned why Americans hated Vladimir Putin, and CNN showed Russian tanks and rockets in live war-zone dispatches.
Michael M. Grynbaum and
The 24-hour television news cycle took on a new kind of challenge on Thursday: a ground war unfolding in Europe.
On CNN, Russian tanks rolled in the background of live shots from Ukraine as explosions rumbled and rockets arced overhead. Wearing body armor and crouched behind a building, the correspondent Matthew Chance delivered a live report as Russian soldiers, just a few feet away, seized an airport just outside the capital city, Kyiv.
The coverage hearkened back to CNN’s reporting on the Persian Gulf war in 1990, which helped cement the network as a destination for breaking news of foreign conflicts. For the invasion of Ukraine, the channel has six correspondents and three anchors deployed in the country along with their crews.
Every major network pre-empted regular programming to air President Biden’s sober remarks from the White House on the conflict. On Wednesday night, moments after the invasion had begun, CBS broke into the medical drama “Good Sam” for a special report from the anchor Norah O’Donnell, who told viewers, “We may be witnessing now what is the beginning of the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.”
Then there was the bifurcated coverage on Fox News, where solemn reports from correspondents — some in Kyiv and Lviv — were interlaced with the isolationist rhetoric of right-wing stars like Tucker Carlson, who questioned why American leaders had vilified Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president.
“Not a single Republican leader has stood up to point out how insane all of this is and how completely divorced it is from anything that American voters actually care about,” Mr. Carlson said on Wednesday evening, criticizing the Republican minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for his anti-Putin remarks.
Hours later, Jennifer Griffin, Fox News’s national security correspondent, delivered a different message to viewers. “The way in which Putin is describing Ukraine, he is describing it as an existential threat to Russia,” Ms. Griffin said. “This is a figment of his imagination. This is a man — if you look in his eyes, you see someone who has gone completely mad.”
On Thursday, Ms. Griffin offered a corrective to the “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy, who had questioned why the threat of American sanctions had not deterred Russia from its attack. “You talk about how the sanctions haven’t worked,” Ms. Griffin replied. “I don’t know if we can say that yet. Overnight, the stock market in Russia fell by half.”
Across television news on Thursday, the coverage included haunting overhead shots of the emptied streets of Kyiv, punctuated by the sounds of air raid sirens and occasional explosions. Some correspondents narrated the events from the safety of hotel room balconies; others were seen wearing flak jackets and helmets in more perilous situations.
Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, interviewed frightened Ukrainians from inside a crowded Kharkiv subway station where people had fled to hide from bombings. “Just as we arrived here there were more explosions, people came flooding down the stairs into this subway station,” Ms. Ward told viewers.
The head of CNN International, Mike McCarthy, said in an interview that the network had 75 people in Ukraine, including drivers and local interpreters. The network is using the city of Lviv in western Ukraine as its base, in part to ensure that broadcasts were not interrupted by cyberattacks that may affect Kyiv. He said CNN had “six or seven” backup communications systems in case any failed.
CNN’s newsroom has faced turmoil this month with the abrupt ouster of its longtime president, Jeff Zucker. On Thursday, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Inc., which is close to a merger with CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, said on an earnings calls that the network’s coverage of the invasion was “a proud moment.”
MSNBC also went into breaking news mode, although like Fox News it highlighted its most popular opinion hosts. Rachel Maddow, who was on a two-month hiatus from the network, returned on Thursday to host prime-time coverage.
Rising concerns. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has started reverberating across the globe, adding to the stock market’s woes and spooking investors. The conflict could cause dizzying spikes in prices for energy and food, and severely affect various countries and industries.
The cost of energy. Oil prices already are the highest since 2014, and they have jumped as the conflict has escalated. Russia is the third-largest producer of oil, providing roughly one of every 10 barrels the global economy consumes.
Gas supplies. Europe gets nearly 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and it is likely to be walloped with higher heating bills. Natural gas reserves are running low, and European leaders have accused Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of reducing supplies to gain a political edge.
Food prices. Russia is the world’s largest supplier of wheat and, together with Ukraine, accounts for nearly a quarter of total global exports. In countries like Egypt and Turkey, that flow of grain makes up more than 70 percent of wheat imports.
Shortages of essential metals. The price of palladium, used in automotive exhaust systems and mobile phones, has been soaring amid fears that Russia, the world’s largest exporter of the metal, could be cut off from global markets. The price of nickel, another key Russian export, has also been rising.
Financial turmoil. Global banks are bracing for the effects of sanctions intended to restrict Russia’s access to foreign capital and limit its ability to process payments in dollars, euros and other currencies crucial for trade. Banks are also on alert for retaliatory cyberattacks by Russia.
Amid the gravity of a high-stakes international conflict that has threatened the modern security structure of Europe, some viewers seized on lighter moments. Some partisan accounts on Twitter pointed out the jarring nature of an Applebee’s commercial, with a jingle about “a little bit of chicken fried,” that aired during CNN’s coverage. (Applebee’s said later that it had contacted CNN to pause its advertising on the network; “it never should have aired,” a representative for the restaurant chain said.)
Shortly after the invasion began on Wednesday night, former President Donald J. Trump called in to Laura Ingraham’s prime-time show and blamed the “weakness and the incompetence” of the Biden administration for the Russian military strike. Ms. Ingraham, who bumped her scheduled guest, the journalist Glenn Greenwald, to speak with Mr. Trump, also described a speech by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine imploring Mr. Putin not to invade as “a really pathetic display.”
In the lead-up to the invasion, Mr. Carlson, Fox News’s top-rated host, has taken an isolationist approach. On Tuesday night, he asserted that Democrats believed Americans had a “patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin,” but questioned why the Russian president had been vilified.
“It might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious: What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much?” Mr. Carlson said. He added, “Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia?” He also argued that Ukraine was not a democracy.
“But Joe Biden likes Ukraine, so Putin bad, war good,” Mr. Carlson said.
The comments from Mr. Carlson contrasted with the reporting from the network’s own journalists. Fox News has four correspondents reporting from Ukraine, with Steve Harrigan and Trey Yingst in Kyiv and Mike Tobin and Lucas Tomlinson in Lviv.
On Monday, Ms. Griffin pushed back against the host Sean Hannity, who suggested that Mr. Biden was to blame for the conflict.
“Sean, how we got to this point is a long story, and it predates the Biden administration,” she said, adding, “It includes mistakes made by every U.S. president since the Soviet Union fell apart.”
Tiffany Hsu contributed reporting.
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