Newscasting: What Was Going On

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The three TV networks pre-empted all regular programming and commercials at first, and throughout the week all the channels kept returning to the story—at times briefly, at times for hours on end. On Saturday, the networks carried nothing else for some 15 hours except for bulletins on the arrest of the suspected assassin of Martin Luther King Jr. There was the hauntingly touching funeral, the solemn procession by car, train and car again to the deeply affecting burial rites at Arlington National Cemetery.

Admirable. As the last of the four days of mourning made clear, the coverage was more profound in emotion than in insight. To viewers of all four days of recaps and re-recaps, TV, with all its passionate impact, clearly had its problems and deficiencies. The scheduling decisions were difficult and hazardous. How much was too much? What silly and mindless programs were safe to use and which were not? What commercials seemed tasteful enough?

Opting for constant coverage was obviously not the answer. Through the week, NBC devoted 55 hours to the shooting and aftermath, ABC 43 and CBS 42. Some of it—especially after the first twelve hours or so—was redundant and repetitive. As NBC's Jack Perkins observed from the Los Angeles airport: "We seem to dwell a great deal on the smallest details, like which way the nose of the plane will be pointed. It may not be important news, but it may be a form of catharsis. The recital of all this minutiae may somehow help a person accept the unacceptable." NBC Executive Vice President Reuvan Frank offered the justification that "this is a serious and grievous time in American history, and we think what we are doing not only emphasizes this to the people in their homes but allows them to think about it in those terms."

In those terms, television performed admirably.

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