New cable network's coverage of TWA crash rivals competition Live pictures of the scene were unmatched by CNN

Tragedy Of Flight 800

July 19, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

New-kid-on-the-block MSNBC proved it can play with the big boys Wednesday night by matching, and at times bettering, rival CNN's live coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800.

The new cable network, launched with fanfare only two days earlier, benefited from the unflappability of anchor Brian Williams and the technological superiority of New York station WNBC, which used a specially equipped helicopter to produce live pictures of the crash scene that CNN was never able to match.

In fact, MSNBC -- perhaps unconsciously -- turned what could have been a weakness into a strength. The glitches that betrayed the channel's inexperience with breaking-news -- Williams, for instance, had to demand on-air that a computer be placed within his reach so he could monitor wire reports of the crash -- heightened the sense of immediacy and uncertainty surrounding news coverage of the tragedy.

On CNN, anchors Kathleen Kennedy and Lyndon Soles did their usual professional job, interviewing government officials, aviation experts and eyewitnesses.

The channel also broadcast what were apparently the first pictures of the crash site at 10: 42 p.m. -- a blurry pastiche of white lights shot from some 10 miles away.

CNN's talking heads, blurry photography and extended coverage of a press briefing from TWA Vice President Mike Kelly were no match for what MSNBC was able to put on the air 10 minutes later.

As Williams explained the specially mounted camera on the WNBC helicopter, the first clear pictures of the site were broadcast -- although still taken from 10 miles away. Before long, WNBC was able to fly much closer to the site and, for the first time, the TV audience could clearly see the flaming wreckage.

Other players from Wednesday night's coverage included:

"Terrorism expert" Larry Johnson on CNN who, despite repeated on-air reminders that it was too early to jump to conclusions, said he was positive the explosion was the work of terrorists.

Mary Schiavo, the recently deposed inspector-general of the Department of Transportation, who reminded MSNBC's Williams that her investigators had been able to penetrate airport security systems 40 percent of the time.

Eyewitness Eileen Daly, who told CNN that she saw what looked like a fireball over the ocean.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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