Newscasting: What Was Going On

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"Senator Kennedy has been . . . Senator Kennedy has been shot! Is that possible? Is that possible? It is possible, ladies and gentlemen! It is possible! He has . . . Not only Senator Kennedy! Oh my God! . . . I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has hold of the man who apparently fired the shot! He still has the gun! The gun is pointed at me right this moment! Get the gun! Get the gun! Get the gun! Stay away from the guy! Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Break it if you have to! Get the gun, Rafer! Hold him! We don't want another Oswald! Hold him, Rafer . . . The Senator is on the ground! He's bleeding profusely . . . The ambulance has been called for, and this is a terrible thing! . . . Ethel Kennedy is standing by. She is calm, a woman with a tremendous amount of presence . . . The shock is so great my mouth is dry . . . We are shaking as is everyone else. I do not know if the Senator is dead or if he is alive . . ."

The newsmen and their producers seemed themselves too numbed to grasp full command of the story until several hours after the shooting. Huntley and Brinkley seemed uncommonly beside the point; the early reporting hours demanded more footwork and fast talk—and less punditry. NBC anchorman Frank McGee shared with Sander Vanocur the credit for the coolest and ablest reporting on any channel.

It was roughly three hours before the networks had the chronology, the facts and their film finally sorted out and began their morning cycle. The plan, as ABC Producer Daryl Griffin put it, was to "repeat the salient points every half-hour so that people everywhere, waking up at different times, would know what was going on."

Painful. Some 6,000,000 American TV households, most of them in the West and not yet asleep, got a chance to follow the beginning live reportage. The rest of the country awoke to recaps of the tragedy on radio and TV. Along with updating the story with each reprise, the networks were clearly in a race to be the first to interview the Senator's congressional colleagues and friends, witnesses, cabdrivers, National Rifle Association officials, men in the street, housewives, children.

In the days that followed, panel programs were thronged with psychiatrists who discussed violence and victims who discussed bullet wounds. Bernard Perlman of Mt. Sinai Hospital illustrated his talk for ABC with a plaster model of the brain; painstaking journalism can be painful to watch. So, too, was the appearance of Dr. Lawrence Pool of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, who had talked long-distance to a member of the Good Samaritan surgical team and who on CBS's Manhattan radio station—and later on NBC-TV—gave Americans the first warning that the brain damage was much more "ominous" than the first official bulletins had indicated.

Reaching. The networks kept laboring to find fresh perspectives—sometimes finding them and at other times simply reaching too far. NBC, via satellite hookup, carried a prayer of hope (in shaky English) from Pope Paul, and later interviewed Sirhan Sirhan's father in Jordan. All three networks, using a pool helicopter, followed the Kennedy cortege from Good Samaritan Hospital down the freeways to Los Angeles International Airport.

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