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Analysis: National, local reports on Columbia fitting

Monday, February 03, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Saturday's television coverage of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia played like a horrifying, heartbreaking rerun.

Multiple white streaks across a blue sky bore an eerie similarity to the dominant image in TV coverage of the Challenger explosion 17 years ago.

Models of the shuttle were dusted off so news anchors could point to various parts of the vehicle as they tried to make sense of the disaster.

As with Challenger, where school teacher Christa McAuliffe became the focal point of so much coverage, this time another guest on the shuttle, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, became an immediate sidebar story.

Even talk of how the American public had been lulled into a false sense of routine about the shuttle program was familiar from coverage at the time of the Challenger disaster.

By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, CBS's Dan Rather was on the air, steadily anchoring the network's live report. It was Solemn Dan presiding over yet another national day of mourning as opposed to Strange Analogy Dan who appears on election night.

CNN's Miles O'Brien, who covers NASA for the network, reminded viewers, "This is still an experimental vehicle. It is not an airliner." CNN had interviews with the crew before their launch into space. Seeing their excitement for their jobs, their acknowledgment of the risks involved made CNN's coverage even more poignant.

By mid-morning, a CNN reporter had spoken to the brother of one of the Columbia astronauts, but she respectfully did not name which one.

Overall, coverage was restrained, serious and appropriate. There was little sensation, just a mounting sadness and eagerness to put the fears about potential causes to rest (particularly terrorism), while warning citizens in the debris field to stay away from pieces of the shuttle that could prove toxic.

It was television's first big test since 9/11, and as it was on that day, TV news was at its most solid. For once, the "breaking news" banner applied (at least until evening when it no longer seemed apt) and the news ticker at the bottom of the screen offered valuable information to those tuning in and out of coverage as opposed to being a piece of graphic overkill.

ABC's Peter Jennings put TV's role in perspective.

"We're doing what the country does at times like this," he said. "We're sitting around and talking about it. It helps us understand [what happened], God willing, and it helps people get through it in some sort of way."

One notable difference from the Challenger accident: More amateur video of the Columbia catastrophe. The proliferation of home video cameras meant viewers saw the white streaks of the disintegrating shuttle from various angles and ground locations.

Digital cameras, too, added a new sense of immediate impact. A viewer e-mailed CNN a photo of a piece of debris, which O'Brien showed on the air.

WPXI, which should be running weekend "Today" every weekend, wisely abandoned its repetitive local news and went to NBC's coverage early on. Space coverage veteran Jay Barbree proved a valuable resource for NBC and disproved the prevailing notion that all TV reporters should be young and cute.

The networks were all on the story by 10 a.m. Saturday. CBS was the most nimble in response. ABC -- which, unlike its rivals is without a Saturday morning newscast, and with Peter Jennings hours away -- was at an initial disadvantage. He arrived at 12:20 p.m.

NBC's Tom Brokaw was on vacation on Saturday, causing the network to replace him with his eventual successor as primary anchor, Brian Williams. Brokaw cut short his break to join the coverage Saturday night. He ended a one-hour prime-time report, saying, "Goodnight and hug your children."

Local stations brought in their mainline anchors for Saturday night coverage, with Sally Wiggin and Scott Baker on WTAE and David Johnson and Gina Redmond on WPXI. At KDKA, which found itself down a weekend anchor after the departure of Gabrielle DeRose last week, Patrice King Brown joined Don Cannon at the desk. Sunday morning, Channel 4 brought in its weekday anchor team of Wendy Bell and Kelly Frey.

WPGH remained with regular programming on Saturday. After ABC ended its live report at 4 p.m. Saturday, WTAE carried CNN coverage until its local newscast at 6 p.m.

Local stations sought to localize the story by interviewing former astronaut Jay Apt at his Carnegie Mellon University office, although Channel 11's Karen Welles mistakenly referred to him as "Jay Alt" throughout her 6 p.m. report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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