Breaking (the) news

If you’ve been reading this blog for the past year, or its predecessor blog the three years before that, you know by now that I’m a media geek.

Media geekdom includes interest in old media. News geekdom includes interest in how the news media works, particularly those most unpredictable of events, breaking news.

What you see on the noon, 5, 6, 9 or 10 p.m. news is what the TV station plans to tell you — stories decided in the morning by an assignment editor, reported and photographed by a reporter and photographer (who now are sometimes the same person), and written and edited into a coherent report. Some of those reports are live (and as those who watched The Ripon Channel’s coverage of election results Tuesday night know, live TV has its own hazards), but for the most part even the live shots are there for effect more than for actual news occurring at that very moment.

Covering live news is facilitated yet constrained by technology, as you’ll read. Sound recording devices weren’t in great use in the early days of radio, so pretty much all radio news was delivered live.

Which makes perhaps the first radio breaking news to be the interruptions to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a talk show and other programming, including NFL football on Dec. 7, 1941:

Early TV was live too, rarely recorded because early videotape was 2 inches wide. Most early TV recordings are kinescopes, a film of a TV screen. Non-live TV news reports were done on film, which required shooting 16-millimeter film shot at 30 frames per second. More than one foot of film was required for one second of film, without the word “usable” in that sentence.

One of the more famous early live TV moments that would have been seen nationwide had that been possible was when a 3-year-old girl fell down an abandoned well in San Marino, Calif. KTLA-TV was on the air live for 27½ hours covering the incident until the girl’s body was found.

On Nov. 22, 1963, John F.  and Jacqueline Kennedy went to Dallas on a campaign trip to benefit Texas Democrats. Dallas TV stations banded together to cover the Kennedy’s arrival at Love Field in Dallas, and were set to cover his speech at the Dallas Trade Mart.

Kennedy’s assassination proved an enormous technical challenge, as shown by the live TV coverage. TV cameras took about 20 minutes to warm up, which is why the first reports were voiceovers behind NEWS BULLETIN slides. WFAA-TV in Dallas was able to go live, but the YouTube chronicler of a huge number of JFK video and audio describes the first hour of WFAA’s coverage as “total disorganization.” (The first host was WFAA’s program director, not a news person, who nonetheless was in Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting.)

The same description applies to WFAA’s network, ABC, who started with an anchor who appeared a bit lost on the air, and then was replaced by anchor Ron Cochran, summoned from lunch, who was juggling wire copy, a telephone and a microphone. NBC had several early loud technical problems. Only CBS seemed t0 avoid the technical gremlins, at least as far as viewers could see.

Kennedy’s assassination ushered in an era of assassinations and other grim news that TV was able to cover live, despite huge cameras and other technological challenges:

The biggest TV news innovation of the 20th century probably was the minicam, a handheld, battery-powered video camera that recorded on ¾-inch videotape (with your preferred soundbite recorded onto another videotape for use in the newscast) or could be hooked up to  a TV station microwave truck for live shots from the field. Microwave trucks are still used, but satellite trucks can now do the same thing with more range than line-of-sight microwaves. (And cameras now record onto much smaller tapes or computer disks or internal hard drives.)

Then came the era of all-news cable channels, led by CNN:

The phrase “the fog of war” applies to live news too. Notice during the ABC coverage of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt that ABC (as did others) reported that Reagan was shot at, but not hit, and then ABC’s Frank Reynolds had to change the report on the air. Later, presidential press secretary James Brady was reported to have died, and Reynolds, a friend of Brady, blew up on the air when he had to correct that report.

Reagan’s shooting happened a few months after the death of John Lennon, which was initially reported on ABC not by Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel, but on Monday Night Football, since word of Lennon’s death occurred during the two-minute warning of that night’s Miami–New England game:

Few Wisconsin news events have been worthy of news bulletins. The biggest story I ever covered, the shooting death of a Grant County sheriff’s deputy, got day-after coverage, but there was no video to get because the deputy sheriff was shot to death and his shooter was arrested within a couple of hours in the middle of the night.

The 1984 Barneveld tornado didn’t get live coverage, because only one of Madison’s TV stations was on the air when the tornado hit just before 1 a.m., and that station had nothing to report since there was no tornado warning before the tornado hit. There also were no 5 a.m. news shows where early video could have been shown.

The news of Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes wasn’t exactly news bulletin-worthy, although Dahmer did make live TV appearances during some court proceedings. Before WDJT-TV was a CBS station, it carried Dahmer’s trial live, using WITI-TV’s news reporters and photographers.

I was indirectly involved in reporting of the 2007 shooting death of Weston High School principal John Klang, because Klang was a Marian University graduate. I didn’t watch TV coverage, but I followed coverage online. When a Madison TV station  reported that Klang was in “extremely critical condition” after surgery, I knew from past experience that announcement of Klang’s death was being delayed only by notification of family.

With the advent of the ability to cover live things and the growth of cable news channels, the threshold of bulletin-worth news events has dropped over the years. You might find some of the following to be worthy of breaking into regularly scheduled programming, and others not:

Was Princess Diana’s death worthy of all-night coverage in this country? Was the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999 worthy of all-day news coverage? With all due respect to the careers of CBS’ Ed Bradley and Walter Cronkite and NBC’s Tim Russert, their deaths did not warrant a middle-of-the-day news bulletin.

The thing about breaking news is that it’s being reported as it’s happening. It’s sort of like sports play-by-play, but obviously infinitely more serious. Imagine being a news anchor and getting news that a plane crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. You might think that was a terrible accident and hard to imagine how a pilot could do that, until you watch what happens next.

There is an internal incongruity to reporting on breaking news. On the one hand, it’s professionally satisfying and undeniably exciting. (Similar to Winston Churchill’s observation of the thrill of getting shot at and missed.) The names of news reporters who went on to bigger things, or at least higher stature, as a result of their work on the JFK assassination, include CBS’ Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, NBC’s Robert MacNeil (the first NBC reporter on the scene) and Tom Pettit (who reported Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting live), and newspaper reporter Bob Schieffer, now with CBS. There has been a certain romance about being a war correspondent, as long  as you don’t get killed in the process. (Which unfortunately was how the lives of former La Crosse TV reporter David Bloom and UW graduate Anthony Shadid ended.)

Those who reported on any of these clips on this blog reported on human tragedy — deaths, permanent loss for families, and permanent change that was not progress for this country. Their rationale probably was that the events were going to occur anyway, and someone had to report them.

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