Perhaps the networks should stay on perpetual terrorist alert.
Perhaps there should be an all-terrorism network just to monitor the latest in 20th-century barbarics.
An the networks moved from readiness into mobilization for coverage of the shooting of Pope John Paul II, viewers may have felt they were not so much watching an unfolding news story as taking part in an achingly familiar communal ritual. It was, after all, only six weeks since the networks had carried the news of an attack on the president of the United States.
The coverage seemed more and more like a reflex action as the day wore on, and you had to ask yourself not only how familiar all this has become, as part of everyday insanity in the so-called global village, but also how much more familiar and commonplace, and therefore numbing and desensitizing, it will get in months and years to come.
"We've had altogether too much experience in covering this kind of story," Ted Koppel of ABC News said yesterday afternoon as the coverage continued. The grim similarities to the Reagan coverage were obvious -- the tentative, qualified early reports, the drafting of guest expert commentators (doctors and priests in this case), the repetition of footage from the scene of the crime, the marathon broadcasting as the gravity of the event grew more tangible.
At least two of the networks even dragged out their plastic replicas of a human body to demonstrate where the pope had been injured and the trajectory of bullets. Those models haven't had much rest since the last time they were used. It may be that for some people, assassination coverage is the chief source of information on human anatomy.
However, the assassination attempt on the pope differed on television from the assassination attempt on the president in that there were no immediate pictures available of the shooting itself. Apparently it is much easier to cover domestic shootings than foreign ones. The initial videotapes released by Italy's RAI Television contained no footage of the actual assault, only of the prelude and the aftermath. This may have been all to the good, because it meant the networks could not rerun the scene over and over until its impact degenerated into mere macabre spectacle, a ritual within ritual.
Some network commentators in effect apologized to viewers for not being able to show them tapes of the pope being struck by bullets.
ABC, first on the air with videotapes of the scene fed by satellite from Rome, was also first with an on-air promo incorporating some of that footage of the pope while an announcer urged viewers to "staf with Abc News."
Obviously recalling the maelstrom of conflicting and erraneous reports that made it to the air on the day of the Reagan shooting network correspondents went out of their way to hedge and duck on this story. No one went to greater lengths to be cautious than Dan Rather of CBS News, who told viewers that reporting such an event as the shooting was "not an exact science" but that "it is, at best, under these circumstances, a very crude art."
"We're doing our best" to be accurate, Rather told viewers, almost imploringly defensive. When it was reported that the pope had been hit by three bullets instead of the previously reported two, Rather said to the viewer, "Yes, I recognize this as a change," as if responding to the jeers of a heckler.
Rather in his summations of the story-so-far used cautionary phrases like "what we believe we know" and "what we think we know."
Again the gathering of the news became part of the news. Correspondents chatted on the air about the problems involved in such coverage. ABC's Koppel introduced newly arrived arrived tape footage from Rome by saying, "We're watching it for the first time, even as you see it," and when CBS showed the same tape a few minutes later, Rather said "I am seeing this videotape as you are, for the first time here."
The actual pictures and sounds from Rome of the aftermath of the shooting were the most eloquent reportage of the day, and these pictures needed no narration or embellishment. They showed the pope's white Jeeplike vehicle speeding him off toward the hospital, with one glimpse of him lying back in his seat, his head cradled in the hands of an aide, and they showed the stricken onlookers who were left behind, weeping and crying out.
"We'll be remembering those pictures for a long time," said NBC's John Chancellor. Yes -- at least until another monumental tradegy comes zooming over the airwaves.
Frank Reynolds may have seniority among network anchormen now if only because his hair is the grayest of the three. Throughout the afternoon, Reynolds filled not just the reporter function one expects of a journalist but also the tricky, hard-to-define, friend-and-counsel role peculiar to TV anchormen. Reynolds didn't just report; he commiserated. He paused now and then to reflect, verbally or merely with sighs and facial expressions, on how terrible all this was.
He's like a sob brother. It may be a very important function.
Chancellor of NBC seems to go off into his own world; he doesn't embrace the viewer like a pal. Rather tries to but doesn't really succeed; ordering up a moment of silent prayer came across more as grandstanding than as honest response to the news at hand. He was on the air longer than any of the other network anchors, however, and he again proved masterfully cool and articulate.
For the record, CBS News remained on the air longer than the other networks yesterday. ABC News was consistently first with satellite footage from Rome. NBC showed the most devotion to, and the least willingness to cut away from, it's afternoon soap operas -- but then, it's not particularly surprising that many viewers may have found themselves wanting to escape to "Another World."