Stations not allowed to let public see funeral

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Unitas family sought a private service

September 18, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

About 2,000 people gathered at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore yesterday morning to pay their respects to John Unitas, as the memorial services and funeral Mass were open to the public.

But the media found themselves on the outside, as the Hall-of-Fame quarterback's family ruled out the presence of all cameras and microphones inside the cathedral. That complicated the ability of the city's four television stations to cover the memorial and led to quiet confusion over how to handle it.

WJZ-TV carried live sound throughout most of the morning's service, from speakers set up outside for possible overflow crowds. Some people involved in coordinating coverage suggest that WJZ went against the intentions of the Unitas family by doing this. WJZ was well within its legal rights, but the family's understandable attempt to control media coverage, while at the same time reaching out to the public, has placed the issue in a big gray area.

Attempts to ascertain the Unitases' reaction to coverage through a family friend were unsuccessful yesterday.

In the days immediately preceding the funeral, Sandy Unitas, the late quarterback's widow, had requested restrictions through church officials. She asked for no press - not even a single camera that could provide sights and sounds to be shared by all the stations. News editors at the stations asked for a "mult-box," which is the name of a contraption that allows different channels to tap the same audio from a single microphone inside. That was ruled out, too.

"The family said we could not provide a live feed to the media," says Dan Cline, director of operations for the cathedral. "Mrs. Unitas said she did not want it turned into a media circus. She didn't want the services broadcast live."

Staffers for all the stations interviewed prominent attendees, and taped eulogies by putting their microphones in front of the outside speakers, resulting in poor sound quality. Several Baltimore reporters, including some from The Sun, WBAL-TV and WMAR, entered the church for the service on the justification that it was open to everyone - including them. They took no photographs nor made any tape recordings, however.

WJZ went ahead with the live broadcast, however, accompanying the words with footage of Unitas on the football field and at charity events, and showing still pictures of some of the speakers.

WBAL-TV and WMAR replayed clips of eulogies during on-the-spot reports from the cathedral, deciding against offering wall-to-wall coverage. Only about a dozen people were outside listening to the services, but anyone who drove or walked on Charles Street near the cathedral could have heard it - placing the words firmly in the public sphere. Gail Bending, WJZ's news director, says the station telegraphed its intentions well in advance to the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"Every step of the way, we worked hand-in-glove with the archdiocese," she says. (As an aside, thank your lucky stars that Marty Bass and Don Scott were sporting those big "Unitas #19" buttons. Otherwise, we might have thought they were sitting shiva for the Baltimore Ravens offense.)

Stephen Kearney, director of communications for the archdiocese, says there was never any conversation about a live broadcast off the speakers. But Sandy Unitas was adamant that there would be no live feeds. Says Cline, "Nobody here thought they'd be able to record anything with enough fidelity so they could broadcast it."

WMAR's news director, Staci Feger-Childers, says her station explicitly asked whether she could broadcast live from the big speakers, and was told she couldn't.

So what's a TV news director in a town buffeted by Baltimore Colts nostalgia to do?

"We've proven since the get-go that we wanted to honor the family's wishes," says Margaret Cronan, news director for WBAL-TV. "We were pretty much being told by the family that they wanted this to be more private."

WBAL-TV cut in repeatedly for updates from reporters Gerry Sandusky and Jennifer Franciotti. WBFF offered repeated updates from outside the cathedral grounds throughout the station's three-hour morning show, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. In addition, the evening and late newscasts featured stories by reporter John Rydell and Brent Harris, a former photojournalist for the station who has replaced weekend sports anchor Steve Davis. Davis is now sports director at WUSA-TV in Washington.

"To my mind, it's up to the individual news organization," says Mark S. Miller, news director for WBAL radio (1090 AM), the sister station to WBAL-TV. "Once you put out speakers and you're piping it out to the public, it's in the public domain."

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