The shots, the panic, the confusion, the anguish, the shock, the gathering of clues, the search for the truth. It was all on television yesterday as the networks covered the assassination attempt on President Reagan.
Suddenly viewers and television were plunged together into a nightmare scene that recalled Nov. 22, 1963, when Walter Cronkite, choking back tears, said the President John F. Kennedy was dead. But if this is still the age of television, it is now also the age of instant replay. And so throughout the afternoon the networks played over and over their tapes of the shooting.
They slowed the tape down. The advanced it frame-by-frame. The stopped it and discussed angles of trajedory. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of the presidential press secretary, James S. Brady, as he lay stricken and bleeding on the sidewalk and then, at 5:13, viewers heard Dan Rather of CBS News say, "It is now confirmed that Jim Brady has died."
Thirteen minutes later a White House spokesman on the air live said the report of Brady's death was "untrue." Rather said, "There is some confusion." Later, Chris Wallace of NBC News reported on the air that the president was undergoing "open-heart surgery," apparently untrue; a White House adviser had to deny that report after Wallace repeated it. Again, as in past crisis, the viewer was becoming privy to the newsgathering process.
For all the sophistication of the technology, much of the reporting was still confused and tentative. The story unfolded step-by-step, sometimes contradictorily -- like a grim thriller -- throughout the afternoon.
You were compelled to remain vigilant at the scene in fear and fascination. No matter how many times the scene at the hotel was replayed -- Reagan waving a farewell, shots ringing out, onlookers scattering, the Secret Service agent pushing the president into the back seat of the presidential limousine, the blond hair of the alleged assailant glimpsed within a madding crowd of security men, the machine gun held aloft by a tense agent -- it retained its eerie, mordant, chilling power.
An elaborate, globe-shrinking communications system was conveying, as it has before in American history, a primitive act of brutality. At the same time it became apparent that we can live in a day of instant and total information and still find ourselves maddeningly in the dark.
Thus when Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig was asked at the White House about Brady's condition at 4:14 p.m., he told reporters, live on network television, "I just saw on television what you saw and it sounds serious." Television has to some extent equalized access to information, or to misinformation, as the case may be.
When he first came on the air for CBS News at 2:55 p.m., anchorman Dan Rather assured viewers at least six times within five minutes that President Reagan had not been hit by any of the five shots then believed to have been fired outside the hotel. The president was "unscathed" and "not hit" by the gunfire, Rather told viewers.It was stated as fact.
But at 3:11 p.m., ABC News reported that Reagan had been struck by a bullet but was in "stable" condition. At 3:12, Richard Roth of Cbs News reported that the president "was hit in the left side of the chest" by a bullet. Rather, who later laid the blame for the erroneous early report on White House spokesman Karna Small, told viewers that such confusion was "frequently the case in the early stages of a story . . . particularly when you have an attempt on the president's life."
A moment later Roger Mudd of NBC News said the Associated Press and United Press International "both say the president was shot in the chest." Soon CBS News had a devastating close-up of cracks made by a bullet in a window of the presidential limousine, parked outside George Washington University Hospital. At 4:23, NBC froze a frame of its tape to reveal what appeared to be the handgun used in the shooting of the president of the United States.
For all the abundance of visual detail and electronic documentation of the event, the confusions in reporting, and a suspicion that, somehow, darker complications were being withheld, combined to evoke troublesome echoes of Dallas and the ensuring years of conspiracy rumors -- a sense of dread and deja vu.
There were conflicting reports throughout the afternoon about not only the condition of Reagan and Brady but also on the caliber of the bullet in the gun fired (it volleyed back and forth from .22 to .38), the identity of the other men struck by bullets, whether or not the president would undergo surgery, whether or not the bullet remained in his body, the number of shots fired and other details.
After the Haig statement, Mudd told viewers, "There's an awful lot of information being passed hand-to-hand and being circulated all over Washington." Much of it made it to the air, later to be corrected or amended. This is what happens in a high-density telecommunicative society.
ABC News was the first on the air with a bulletin on the shooting at 2:34 p.m., followed by CBS News at 3:37 and NBC News at 2:38. ABC News was also the first to report that the president had indeed been hit by a bullet during the incident.
Rather seemed preoccupied during the coverage with keeping calm -- he kept repeating that the president had not been hit during early minutes of coverage -- and in showering with praise the Secret Service agent who pushed President Reagan into the shelter or the limousine. "You ask where all the heros have gone; here's one," Rather said.
Rather's efforts to promote calm became almost kind of hysteria of their own.
By contrast, Frank Reynolds of ABC News appeared to be the most reliable and least jumpy anchorman as the story unfolded. Reynolds, unlike Rather, was with the coverage from the very first minute that ABC interrupted the soap opera "One Life to Life" for its report.
Reynolds told viewers, "We have some tape now -- oh, it's not ready. But we'll have it in just a moment." The tape did not materialize until later, after Reynolds had left and returned to the air. "This is the first time any of us has seen any of this tape," said Reynolds, but it would certainly not be the last.
In effect, the nation became a newsroom at this point; newsmakers, reporters and the public were seeing the raw materials of the story at the same time. One saw the president smiling as he left the hotel, heard the shots, saw the melee that followed, and heard frantic cries of police, Secret Service agents and presidential aides:
"A handkerchief! A handkerchief!" called a man cradling Brady's bleeding head in his hand. "Get back! Get back!" another man shouted. "Get a patrol car! Get a patrol car in here!" "Let the ambulance in here; come on, back up, please!"
One network camera turned to follow a woman, believed to be Brady's secretary, as she wept, then ran across the street holding a hand over her mouth. These incredible moments were repeated throughout the afternoon and became no loss horrible with each replay. It may be that in the age of replay, it takes several showings for something like this to sink in.
During some of the replays, the network achormen narrated the footage, talking to engineers playing the tape as well as to viewers. "Stop it," said Reynolds to the unseen engineer as the shooting was played back in slow motion and the figure of President Reagan could be seen hunching forward. "Keep going," said Reynolds, and the type resumed, under examination as if by a national jury looking at evidence.
As the grim afternoon turned to gloomy evening, the mood was unexpected changed with the live appearance on all three networks of Dr. Dennis S. O'leary, George Washington University Hospital spokesman, who fielded reporters' questions on the president's condition, and hailed the patient as "a healthy guy." O'Leary was so affable, articulate, and reassuring (People magazine is certain to write him up) that the briefing became a communal catharsis after an emotionally exhausting day.
O'Leary said the president was out of danger, and went so far as to outline on himself, using his finger, the trajectory of the bullet and the incision made by surgeons. CBS mistakenly cut away from the briefing -- to return to Rather and a plastic model of a body with organs spilling out -- but the other networks wisely stayed with it.
Of the operation, O'Leary said that the president "certainly sailed through it" and that this was "maybe not medically extraordinary, but just short of that."
Clearly, O'Leary was just what the doctor ordered.
He was followed on ABC by a tape of Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter, reacting to the shooting. Her response was "fury and rage and anager," but just as she became most emotional, ABC cut away, perhaps due to a technical fluff. The entire clip was seen later on the Cable News Network. "The American people have got to become angry about the crime in this country," Reagan said.
Ross Simpson, a correspondent for the Mutual Radio Network, managed to sneak into the hospital with Brady's wife Sarah during the afternoon and said later that he was first to report that Brady had suffered "extensive brain damage" and that according to a doctor his chances of survival were "not good." Simpson was finally ejected by the Secret Service and proceeded to brief other reporters on what he had learned. ABC even put him on the air.
Unfortunately, Simpson was reporter Wallace's source for the completely erroneous flash that the president had undergone open-heart surgery. An NBC spokesman said last night that Walace called the report "unconfirmed" but, like the false reports of James Brady's death, it went out over the air to millions and millions of people.
Whether or not the surplus of misinformation doled out yesterday is an inevitable byproduct of an information-addicted, ready-access environment remains to be discussed in future days and weeks. There were few instances of galling tastelessness, a conspicuous one committed by the CBS Television Network which, in the heat of the developing crucial story, paused for a station break at 3:25.
This gave Washington CBS affiliate WDVM-TV the opportunity to run two jarringly jolly commercials: "Hisho Pimlico!" and "Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits."
Sam Donaldson of ABC News, under an umbrella outside the hospital, was telling viewers, "So, to recapitulate, it's been one awful afternoon" when the local ABC station, WJLA, crudely cut in for a lengthy report by its own local news crew. It was the most colossal piece of ineptitude evident during the long afternoon.
NDVM also interrupted its network, but only briefly, to relay information the network did not yet have: that President Reagan was "in surgery" at the moment. Three minutes later, Rather (who kept referring to presidential political adviser Lyn Nofziger as "Noffsinger") gave what he called an "uncomfirmed" report that the president was in surgery. Twenty minutes later, Edwin Newman of NBC News said the president already "underwent" surgery. The story on the president's conditon continued to vary from moment to moment and from network to network.
Rather could be heard saying to off-camera personnel that he wasn't sure he wanted to report "that" yet, without saying what "that" was. Then, he turned to Jed Duvall, who turned in one of the most capable and assured jobs of the day, and said, "Jed, is there anything that you feel confident enough to report?"
There was no choice but to stay turned -- helpless, dazed and, no matter how much information was related, hungry for more.