A difficult day unfolds on television

News coverage of shuttle is marked by restraint

Officials, experts do the talking

Public service role is met in warnings about debris

The loss of Columbia

February 02, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The pictures quickly told the story that the news anchors couldn't yet confirm. By 10 a.m. yesterday, less than an hour after NASA was reported to have lost contact with the space shuttle Columbia, several networks and cable news channels were already airing videotape that showed the spacecraft splinter apart as it hurtled toward Earth.

Reporters were cautious in how they talked about the fate of the space shuttle. But the footage left little doubt.

There was a searing light, captured from various angles as it descended, that suddenly burst into several distinct trails.

The videotape came from news photographers for local television stations in Dallas and other parts of Texas who were attempting to track what was expected to be a picture-perfect landing. One reporter from Waco was out to tape stock footage when he saw the shuttle burning in the morning sky. Later in the day, networks also obtained videotape from amateurs who had sought to record the shuttle's re-entry into the atmosphere.

"There's certainly very little reason to hope about their fate," David Gregory, a weekend anchor for NBC News, said yesterday morning after more shots of the explosion were shown.

But several hours passed before National Aeronautics and Space Administration and White House officials would publicly confirm that Columbia had been destroyed, and correspondents during that time seemed to brake their speculation. "I think it's important to say, as a journalist, frequently the first things you hear turn out to be not right, or not quite right," CBS anchor Dan Rather told viewers.

At times, television news operations functioned like the public utilities they profess to be. If you are near the flight path, don't touch any debris, anchors warned - it could be toxic. Experts added that gases from the shuttle's exotic fuels could coat lungs and shut them down.

And they addressed and dismissed the notion that anyone on Earth - especially terrorists - could have brought down the shuttle. That speculation, though, was given a slightly sharper edge by the detail that the Israeli astronaut aboard Columbia was also a fighter pilot who led strikes on an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981.

Fox News' Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush, articulated the challenge White House aides faced in preparing the president to address the country at such a moment. "You have to let somebody speak from the heart. He's somebody who cares deeply about people," Snow said. "This is not a guy you want to have reading Shakespeare. It's not him." But Bush did quote the prophet Isaiah.

Many journalists tapped into the echoes of the 1986 explosion of Challenger. But because of the wave of anxiety-inducing news over the past 18 months - terrorist strikes, a seemingly imminent war - it appeared difficult for some of the networks to figure out how and where the event fit into today's landscape.

ABC's Bill Blakemore and CNN's Miles O'Brien both appeared rattled at times as they attempted to choreograph their broadcasts, although O'Brien brought important knowledge to the story through his past coverage of the space program. ABC does not typically offer news programming on Saturday mornings.

By the end of the morning, the big names had settled into the anchor chairs - Rather for CBS, Peter Jennings for ABC News and Brian Williams for NBC - on a day when they were not expected on the air. "We're doing what the [medium] does during such things - we sit around and talk about it," Jennings said during one lull. "It certainly helps people get through it, in some cases."

On NBC, Williams pointed out that media coverage had gotten "blase" about the shuttle missions - as though they were routine and safe.

In an interview with Fox News, Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, expressed sorrow at the loss of his country's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. "For Israelis facing tension of the worst and most terrible kind ... all of a sudden, there's something good happening [and] someone who is a role model."

Although the language was somber, and sometimes repetitive, there were brief bursts of eloquence. ABC's Terry Moran characterized the flight team this way: "The son of Israel, the daughter of India, the descendant of slaves - men and women, working together."

Television viewers saw NASA officials for themselves, visibly mourning colleagues and reeling from the blow to the space program. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe asked the news media to respect the privacy and the grief of the crew's survivors, though NBC soon aired an interview with the parents of one of them.

Most networks provided commercial-free coverage throughout most of the day. CBS broke away from the story just before 4 p.m., allowing WJZ-TV to show the network's scheduled golf tournament, but local ABC affiliate WMAR-TV picked up a CNN feed after dropping ABC's coverage.

Because of its strained contractual relations with Fox News, WBFF-TV, the Baltimore Fox affiliate, could not broadcast any Fox News Channel coverage that was not deemed a "level one" event. Only President Bush's brief eulogy, which aired live on WBFF and other stations, received that designation.

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