Wednesday, October 19, 2005

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Nothing new on ivory-bill

The long-running CBS news program “60 Minutes” did a feature Sunday on the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods near Brinkley, adding nothing new to the subject, although viewers in this part of the country probably suspected that Ed Bradley, one of the show’s long-time correspondents, didn’t quite know where he was or whether he spent much time here.

The segment included shots of a birding festival in Clarendon, but the elusive woodpecker, long thought to have been extinct, was actually spotted in the Bayou De-View in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area less than five miles from Brinkley — near I-40, one of the nation’s busiest interstates, which cuts through the wildlife area and which would have made an interesting shot for the segment.

Bradley, who was shown in the bayou where Gene Sparling had reported seeing the bird almost two years ago, probably spent a few hours in the state doing a couple of interviews and read his narration in a studio in New York while his producer and cameraman did most of the work, such as it was.

“60 Minutes” is famous for its stunning camera work, and there were a few good shots from Bayou DeView, although I didn’t hear the bayou’s name mentioned, and the pictures were no different from what we’ve seen on television since last spring, when it was first announced that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted in the bayou several times and videotaped once.

Bradley and his crew missed an opportunity to report on the next phase of the ivory-bill saga: Scientists, mostly from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, who have studied the bird for more than 60 years, will resume their search for the bird this fall, from Cotton Plant in the north down to (yes) Clarendon in the south.

Scientists think as many as a dozen ivory-billed woodpeckers, if they exist at all, are hiding deep in the woods between those two spots, most of them in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge at Claren-don, which is far larger than the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area where Sparling had first seen the bird.

The program missed another crucial angle: The Grand Prairie Irrigation Project on the White River at DeValls Bluff, which environmentalists oppose, as it will drain 158 billion gallons of water every year and threatens the wetlands that have helped preserve the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Construction of the pumping station is well underway and only a court ruling would stop the Corps of Engineers from completing the project.
Perhaps “60 Minutes” will re-turn next winter and do a followup, especially if more sightings are reported. But if the “60 Minutes” team does return, it will be old news, which helps explain why the TV news magazines aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Audiences have deserted these shows after years of inaccurate reporting — from young George Bush’s phony National Guard records on “60 Minutes II” (now cancelled) to fake consumer tests on “Dateline.”

In addition, TV news magazines face more competition from cable and other media. Maybe another reason fewer people are watching is that they’ve figured out correspondents do very little re-porting. So-called producers do most of the leg work before high-priced stars like Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley drop in, read a script and interview their subjects in extreme closeup as they fidget, or better yet, lose their composure.

There were two weepers on “60 Minutes” last Sunday: A segment on a former football player with drug problems who sobbed like a kid, and the head of the Cornell Lab who held back tears as he described his joy over the ivory-billed woodpecker’s rediscovery.
You’d cry too if you spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker in east Arkansas.
You’re less than an hour away from the Big Woods. Start looking.