Bad News, Broken Slowly

Images, and hard facts, from the Virginia Tech campus were slow in coming at first.
Images, and hard facts, from the Virginia Tech campus were slow in coming at first. (Cnn Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"I'm Charles Gibson," said the familiar face on the screen. "I wish I could say it's been a good day. It hasn't."

Thus did Gibson close ABC's "World News" last night after having devoted most of the broadcast to the shocking, head-spinning story of a campus massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg.

Hours earlier, the day and the week had started out typically -- dominated by news of the war in Iraq and reports of a storm system pummeling the East. Before long, though, word of the shootings was being spread by television, radio and the Internet, and -- hardly for the first time -- the nation was electronically linked and unified in shock. We didn't just watch; we kept watch.

By the end of the day, the story was coldly summarized in statistics: 33 dead, about 30 injured, the worst mass shooting in American history. But by personalizing mass tragedy through the words and pictures of those who lived through it, television democratized the sorrow, outrage and alarm -- just as it had done, in much larger scale and scope, on 9/11/2001.

The details and pictures were very slow in coming throughout the day, even though the tragedy began to unfold shortly after 7 a.m., when the first of the day's killings by an unidentified shooter took place in a campus dormitory. Blacksburg is remote as TV locations go, a college town served by relatively small network affiliates and independent stations, so networks had no easy time moving in and setting up camp.

Both Gibson and NBC anchor Brian Williams were on the air with special reports shortly past noon, but Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, was on her way to Blacksburg. From there, she anchored an expanded one-hour edition of "CBS Evening News," turning a borrowed campus office into a kind of salon and turning the program into a talk show, with various guests -- including students who witnessed some of the violence -- dropping by to be interviewed.

The guests included Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who went from his talk with Couric to a chat with Williams, by then anchoring "NBC Nightly News" from another location on or near the campus. At least Williams was outdoors with the campus buildings behind him, chilly wind messing up his hair, which gave his appearance an aura of authenticity. Couric was in a nondescript room that could have been anywhere; the only evidence it was in Blacksburg was that she told us it was.

CNN was the first of the cable news networks to break the story, reporting it to viewers at 10:07 a.m., according to an industry insider. Fox News Channel was next at 10:12, followed by the NBC-owned MSNBC at 10:13. An anonymous troublemaker e-mailed a media blog to say that MSNBC was half an hour late in getting the story on the air, but a network source said that was simply not so.

For Fox, it was a day of proving that the network is more than just a staging ground for shouting matches by firebrands and zealots. Throughout the day, its reporting was solid and enterprising and, gruesome as it sounds, Fox stayed ahead of CNN most of the time on the number of people killed or injured by the gunman, who still hadn't been identified by the time the evening network newscasts went on the air.

The body count kept changing throughout the day, and for hours it was unclear whether members of the school's staff were among the victims. It was also not clear if the gunman had shot himself or been shot or apprehended by police -- or escaped altogether. No matter how often it was reported, it seemed incredible that in the two hours that passed between the first killings and the later ones, the campus was not put under any kind of alert.

Nor was this a day in which viewers were likely to be dazzled by the lightning speed of modern telecommunications; instead, one was reminded that there are still areas of the country that are heavily populated yet also relatively isolated. Networks, strapped for visual material, were forced to repeat static shots of parked police cars over and over.

CNN got some wobbly video taken by a Virginia Tech student with a cellphone camera. What made it unique and valuable was the soundtrack: Gunshots could be heard coming from one of the buildings. When ABC aired the video on its evening newscast, it was captioned "CNN Exclusive."

Though ABC publicists boasted that anchor Gibson covered the western part of Virginia "earlier in his career," he didn't make it to Blacksburg for last night's broadcast. He does plan to anchor tonight's program from the campus. ABC, meanwhile, planned a special hour-long edition of "Nightline," anchored by Terry Moran, to air last night starting at 11:35 and is calling this morning's broadcast of "Good Morning America" a "special edition," with Chris Cuomo and Robin Roberts both in Blacksburg.

ABC also plans a one-hour special, "Primetime: Massacre at Virginia Tech," to air at 10 tonight. Other networks will no doubt be releasing details about special broadcasts of their own. The story is certain to dominate the national conversation at least through the rest of the week -- haunting, troubling and deeply disturbing as it is.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company