Newscasting: What Was Going On

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On that first awful morning last week, many Americans phoned relatives and friends; unable to speak the unspeakable, they just said, "Turn on the television." Thus began a four-day period in which TV and radio attempted to link a distraught country into a comprehending whole. They succeeded to a remarkable degree.

The network news staffs were already in Los Angeles in full force, winding up coverage of the California primary, and most staffers—about 500—were within walkie-talkie range of the Ambassador Hotel. ABC was just running sign-off credits for its election team at 12:17 a.m. when the shots cracked out. NBC's Los Angeles anchor desk, though broadcasting election news right along, did not report the shooting until 12:26. The CBS network had already signed off, and most of its affiliated stations were carrying late movies. At CBS New York headquarters, key staffers were relaxing across the street at their hangout bar; it was 21 minutes after the shots before the network returned to the air.

In Two Minutes. ABC thus was first on the screen—at 12:19—with wobbly video tape from the murder scene. CBS's Roger Mudd, in the ballroom during the shooting, was alerted by a man who tore wildly out of the kitchen corridor, put his finger up to his head like a pistol and yelled, "Bang, bang, bang!" "That turned my stomach," recalls Mudd. He and his crew then tore their camera off the tripod and plunged into the corridor. It was a standard film camera, and so was NBC's. By the time CBS and NBC got their film processed and the murder scene pictures on the air, nearly two hours had elapsed.

In the meantime, all three networks had video tapes of the agonizing ballroom scene: Kennedy supporters with cheers choking in their throats, panicky cries for doctors, hysterical sobs and terror. ABC showed George Plimpton wrestling the gun away from the suspect, and all three networks had views of the man as he was hauled off in the custody of a wall of policemen. NBC's Sander Vanocur, who had finished his primary coverage, rushed back to work and found eyewitnesses, whom he debriefed expertly one or two at a time.

"I Am Right Here." Two broadcasters were close enough to get dramatic personal reports. One was ABC's associate news director William Weisel, who had been following Senator Kennedy so closely that he himself was wounded. He delivered a dramatic personal report from his stretcher: "It was a shocking experience. There was a body on the floor, and I saw other bodies crumpled beside me . . ." The Mutual radio network's Andrew West, who was also in the passageway with his tape recorder during the shooting, came out with a report so gripping that the three TV networks and about 2,000 radio stations picked it up for rebroadcast. Excerpts:

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