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Anchors away to Blacksburg -- except for one

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams interviews two Virginia Tech students who lived to tell about Monday's horrific events on campus.

Appearances weren't deceiving. World News anchor Charles Gibson should have joined his competitors in quickly journeying to the traumatized Virginia Tech campus Monday.

Instead the star of ABC's lately No.1-rated dinner hour newscast inexplicably remained in a New York studio while Brian Williams and Katie Couric went those extra miles.

Williams had the best approach. The NBC Nightly News anchor stood outdoors in strong winds, giving viewers a tangible feel for the university and its vast green lawns while interviewing four key witnesses to the "deadliest shooting rampage in American history."

Couric opted for a much cozier, library-like setting during an expanded one-hour edition of the CBS Evening News. It made her seem more distanced from the campus than advisable. But at least Couric went to the site of this story, where she deserved to be taken seriously.

Gibson's World News covered the basic bases, but without getting the lay of the land on a day when "a tranquil college campus became a killing field."

The reporting had a processed, packaged feel, with Gibson throwing a few pro forma questions at ABC correspondents instead of interviewing the story's real people. The network seemed to be caught flat-footed and out of sorts. Pierre Thomas, an alumnus of Virginia Tech, reported from afar in Washington, D.C. So did Jake Tappert.

Gibson still has the common, everyman touch, which he displayed at newscast's end.

"I wish I could say this has been a good day. It hasn't," he said, his voice slightly breaking as he signed off. But you really had to be there -- and he wasn't.

Williams was very much on the scene, but not in a grandstanding way. He first interviewed students Trey Perkins and Derek O'Dell, with the latter wearing a sling after taking a bullet in the arm.

"We saw him actually reload a clip," O'Dell said of the still unidentified gunman, who killed 33 people, including himself.

"You've got a lot of support if and when you need it," Williams told both students, clearly affected by what he had heard.

He also talked to Virginia Tech president Charles Steger and voluntary emergency medical technician Sarah Walker.

All of Williams' interviews were live and to the point. Several of Couric's were pre-taped, including one with O'Dell.

She still has a bad habit of telling interviewees what they think, and then expecting them to think it.

"You all are angry that there wasn't a lockdown after the initial shooting this morning," Couric told a group of three freshman students.

"It's not so much anger as it is confusion about who was making that decision, how it was made," said one of them, Max Davis.

O'Dell similarly got a question in the form of an answer. Sort of like Jeopardy.

"You seem pretty calm, but obviously this must have been terrifying and you're very shaken up," Couric told him.

"Yes, nothing can describe this," he said in part.

All three networks duly reprised the 1966 University of Texas at Austin clock tower massacre, in which Charles Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others. And Virginia Tech student Jamal Albarghouti's cell phone video/audio of the shootings became the go-to graphic of the day, with CNN at first claiming exclusivity before everyone started using it.

CNN's long-planned week-long celebration of Larry King's 50th anniversary in broadcasting understandably has been put on hold. He was scheduled to interview Oprah Winfrey on Monday night and be interviewed by Couric on Tuesday. Instead, King led his Monday program by interviewing Albarghouti, who's been dubbed the network's "I-Reporter" in residence.

Coverage of the tragedy likely will proceed non-stop on Tuesday, with recriminations further setting in and Gibson perhaps finally setting foot on the numbed Virginia Tech campus.

In this case, that's not big-footing. Sometimes an anchor should just know better than to stay at home.