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When News Became Sports

from Vanity Fair


Ted Turner’s upstart cable network beat the Big Three in reporting on the 1981 assassination attempt, though it—along with its broadcast rivals—made a major mistake amid the studio chaos, an early sign of the perils of breaking news on TV.


On a rainy spring Monday in March, Cissy Baker wound up sending her White House crew to a snoozer of a time-filler: the ballroom of the sprawling Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue, where President Ronald Reagan was about to address the national Conference of the Building and Construction Trades of the mighty trade labor union, AFL-CIO.

As was the custom in the carefully orchestrated universe of Washington politics, the text of the speech had been released to the press corps in advance. Most television viewers were unaccustomed to seeing routine events of the day in their entirety, but this was the kind of typical governmental affair that helped CNN burn through many an hour. There was always the chance that at some point the affable president might “commit news,” as the broadcasters cheekily referred to any unexpected development. Maybe there’d be boos from the audience; a bit of mileage could be had from that. As far as Atlanta was concerned, a speech by the president was far preferable to a five-minute, thumb-sucking analysis from Daniel Schorr. No wonder his nickname at CBS had been “Jukebox.”

The camera lingered on the president as he shook hands and beamed his movie-star grin. Anchor Bernie Shaw smoothly deployed his inside-the-Beltway knowledge in summarizing the remarks. Being able to offer this sort of live, postgame analysis was precisely what had lured him to this job. Who cared if there was no audience?

“President Reagan, in a speech that lasted about 19 minutes, drew applause four times from this group,” Shaw observed, with such authority that a viewer might actually believe there was a significance to the number of rounds of applause.

His midday assignment complete, he tossed the baton back to Atlanta. And during the next commercial break, Baker’s wish for a more interesting day suddenly materialized.

The words rang out from the police scanner at 2:27 p.m. “Shots fired” followed by “Hilton Hotel.”

In that instant, Baker frantically connected the dots: The Hilton? That’s where the president was, with one of her crews wrapping up inside. Her mind raced strategically over the map of the city. The chess game of routing personnel, particularly at a time of crisis, was a crucial part of running an assignment desk. Her back-of-the-hand knowledge of the nation’s capital was precisely the reason she’d been offered this job. It didn’t hurt that she ranked as a Washington insider. Her father happened to be the Senate majority leader, Howard Baker.

The next words that bleated out of the scanner offered a disturbing new clue: “Rainbow to GW.” Baker knew the code. “GW” meant the George Washington Hospital, and “Rainbow,” the first lady. If Nancy Reagan was heading for the hospital, that must be because the president was headed there too. But why?

Hearing the fracas among his anxious colleagues, Shaw demanded to know what was going on. A desk assistant said sarcastically, “I think they’re shooting at your president.”

“Don’t joke,” Shaw scolded.

For a veteran newsman, he was curiously unjaded—patriotic, and respectful of authority, even. (That didn’t equal passive. As a young member of the Marine Corps in Hawaii, he’d tracked down Walter Cronkite when he’d learned the anchorman was coming to town, urgently hoping for guidance on how to get into the business.)

The assistant responded to Shaw: “I’m not joking.”

[ click to continue reading at VF ]

Posted on April 28, 2020 by Editor

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