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JULY 19, 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 7



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Covering a Tragedy

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  Covering a Tragedy

GREGORY J. ROBB

July 18, 1999: approximately 9:45 pm EDT: The announcement that the search and rescue operation for the missing occupants of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane off the Massachusetts coast turns into a search and recovery operation. From rescue to recovery; from hope to despair; from survival to death. And in the 24-hour CNN coverage of the Kennedy crisis of 1999, we learn again (as we did with its coverage of Princess Diana's death) that television news has become the most immediate visual medium of our time.

Special broadcasts of Larry King Live all weekend, while the search was on to rescue the crash victims, and CNN's premier resources made us feel like we were all but inside the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport. Reporter Chris Black, a veteran of New England journalism, blitzed down from her vacation home near the Kennedy compound to join such a large gathering of reporters that, she noted, local officials had to provide extra power to accommodate all the newly-arrived satellite transmission trucks. It seemed only fitting, as well, that the press conference in which the word "recovery" replaced "rescue" (the abandonment of hope for survivors) aired during a special edition of Larry King Live. It is in covering this nature of breaking news that CNN is truly a world leader.

The immediacy of the reporting matches the drama of another Kennedy tragedy. During the first night of the search and "rescue", CNN's Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour chose to reveal a friendship which she and John F. Kennedy Jr. shared from their days of partying in the distance between their neighboring college campuses. Little did the vast majority of us know of such a relationship before the tragedy of loss prompted Amanpour's extremely reverent memories of the man whom the world was beginning to mourn. The potential of America mourning the loss of yet another of the Kennedy clan moved one of the world's top reporters to tell us what she did not need to tell us.

Day Two, the final day, of the search and "rescue" was covered more dramatically with cameras shooting pictures in various areas of the country. Larry King had flown to Washington overnight from Los Angeles; as mentioned, reporter Chris Black was on the scene at the Kennedy compound; King's guests included Reverend Jesse Jackson in Chicago; and in moments eerily reminiscent of the Diana and John Lennon deaths, CNN brought us pictures of New Yorkers laying flowers, poems, notes and American flags on the steps leading into John F. Kennedy Jr.'s apartment building. Add to that the press conference which announced that "recovery" had replaced "rescue", and CNN had brought us the world in one hour.

At times like this, pure journalism is produced. Major American networks all had their reporters at the same location outside the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts; not all the major American networks could so easily bring us the non-stop coverage that CNN did. Other networks have to cut in to regular programming - which isn't a problem. But at some point, they have to consider when to return to those shows. Since CNN is a 24-hour news network, the nature of its mandate is to live the story as the story lives. When Larry King finished, he threw it back to the newsroom and those stations who returned to regular programming had to monitor the story off-air.

In the Princess Diana tragedy, most American news organizations found themselves simply broadcasting, with permission, the BBC's emergency coverage. Technology has made it so that we can be right at the scene from our own living rooms. Less "film at 11", more substance now.

Sometimes pure substance can be overwhelming. I couldn't help but feel like all Americans who watched the CNN coverage sighed and lowered their heads in agony as U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral, Richard Larrabee, announced that officials would now try to figure not only what happened, but how it happened; the search for the victims and parts of the plane has begun. The power of news has again pronounced itself as, in the coming days or weeks, viewers will watch for information on the Kennedy crash of 1999.

But they'll never be the same after this night.

FEEDBACK: Share your thoughts on the Kennedy tragedy.



GREGORY J. ROBB, a high school English teacher, gained communication experience in radio, television and print. He is the staff television writer for Renaissance Online Magazine.



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