TV news manages to restrain speculation

Terrorist link raised as question, not answer


November 13, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

So here's a mantra for the turn-of-the-millennium media: responsible speculation for a jittery age.

In the early going yesterday, it was all any of the television journalists could do to keep themselves from linking the disastrous airliner crash over Queens to September's terrorist attacks. It was a logical leap to take -- and yet one the news networks sought, with significant success, to resist.

Financial news anchor Neil Cavuto, who guided much of Fox News Channel's coverage in the first hours, announced: "We must stress this might not be terrorist inspired." Yet he proceeded to push Fox reporter Rita Cosby to concede that the presence of U.S. fighter jets suggested the possibility of terrorist involvement.

A few moments later, David Shuster, a reporter in Fox's Washington bureau, cut in to restrain his colleagues: "Just so that people don't get the wrong idea from Rita's report, the Pentagon says their fighters were scrambled after the jetliner hit the ground."

On other networks, journalists also signaled their lack of certainty. Details given from eyewitnesses were accompanied with reminders that such observations are sometimes mistaken. Comments from unnamed government officials were carefully characterized as early and subject to change.

Behind the scenes, network executives confronted the same kind of choices they have been facing for two months. ESPN sent out a memo to correspondents and anchors calling for a "respectful and straightforward" tone for the day, and asked them to "hold off on jokes" and "frivolous references."

ABC, NBC and CBS pre-empted their network programming about 15 minutes after the crash, which occurred at 9:17 a.m. ABC broadcast its talk show The View at 11 a.m. as few new details emerged, but then interrupted for news programming before the show's end.

Fox offered its affiliates coverage, WBFF News Director Joseph DeFeo said, but did not call for all affiliates to air its special news programming. WBFF, the network's Baltimore affiliate, addressed the disaster in its standard newscasts.

Despite the spectacular nature of the crash, there was no aerial footage from helicopters because they have been banned from air space near Kennedy Airport. Networks and local stations instead relied on shared shots from the city's television outlets and amateur tapes recorded by bystanders for pictures of houses on fire.

Things were rough at the start. On several networks, rattled anchors incorrectly identified which colleagues were speaking on the air or where they were located.

But correspondents provided insightful background that, while speculative, helped viewers understand at least the questions in play, if not the answers.

NBC News' Pete Williams was careful to say that the involvement of the FBI to investigate a possible explosion was prompted by the conflicting accounts of eyewitnesses, not any concrete information. A bit later, Bob Orr of CBS News used a still from video footage of a firefighter kneeling near a fallen section of one of the airline's engines to illustrate why the damage suggested engine failure.

Some elements seemed a bit theatrical. The ubiquitous ratings magnet Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC, just back from Central Asia, rushed to the crash site in Queens. Fox's Cosby artfully let it drop that she had been at a breakfast with the president of Iran near the United Nations when the plane crashed. (So had ABC anchor Peter Jennings. So had a lot of other journalists.)

Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki, the real television stars of the past two months, appeared once again to put the crash in context. They noted the horror of what, by day's end, was being more confidently characterized as a probable accident, while saying that it could have been far worse.

By early afternoon, the networks returned to their normal schedules. Collectively, they had held back from portraying a terrible event as a national catastrophe.

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