"We would not want to be in the position of scooping the Egyptian government on the death of their own leader." -- John Scali, ABC News
After nearly seven hours of supposition, speculation, and confirmation from unnamed sources, the American television networks declared Egyptian President Anwar Sadat "officially" dead just before 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon.
For the third time this year, the network news departments swung dramatically into the red alert of Crisis Television to cover the story of an assassination attempt on a world figure, this one, unlike the attempts on the lives of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, successful. Once more, live, global, reality television unified the nation in nightmare.
By this time, the mechanics of crisis coverage have become virtually ritualistic -- the parade of guest experts, the tentative and heavily qualified nature of early reports, the final confirmation, the worldwide reaction. A horror scenario becoming as familiar as any other video rite.
Said ABC anchor Frank Reynolds to fellow reporter Steve Bell at the end of the afternoon's coverage, "Here we are, Steve; this is the third time in a little more than seven months that we have been such unwelcome messengers of such awful news."
As with the shooting of the pope in May, pictures -- final validation of any event in the vocabulary of television -- were not immediately available. NBC News had a chilling audio tape of screams, shouts and shots that it played several times, at least once as accompaniment to still pictures of prostrate bodies that newsmen could not identify for viewers.
The Egyptian government had closed down Cairo airport and embargoed all satellite transmissions from the scene of the shooting until after the official announcement was made. Dan Rather announced on the air, however, that CBS News correspondent Mitchell Krauss, wounded by shrapnel during the shooting, had left Cairo for Rome before the airport was closed, with a reel of videotape under his arm.
Then, soon after the announcement from Cairo, while Krauss was still in the air, the first tapes of the incident were transmitted by satellite. They included footage of pandemonium on the reviewing stand from which Sadat had watched the day's military parade -- a jungle of toppled chairs and bloodied bodies.
The footage, raw and unedited, contained penetrating images not only of violence and terror but also of panic and social breakdown:
A man whose arm had been completely shattered by gunfire, trying desperately to get to his feet.
Officials in business suits, some red-spattered, scrambling for cover as shots continued to fly; and a man in ornate military regalia, standing dazed and disbelieving, watching helplessly, blood trickling down his cheek.
A jungle of toppled chairs and bodies, lying on the floor of the reviewing stand, survivors sifting through the rubble for more casualties.
And one incredibly dramatic shot of a hand, dripping with blood, reaching up from the floor and trying to grasp the rim of a chair.
These pictures, shot by ABC News cameraman Fabrice Moussos, had a staggering impact, especially after hours of hearsay; they obliterated all the words that had been spoken up to that point.
Still smarting from criticism over hasty reporting during the Reagan shooting -- when presidential press secretary James Brady was erroneously declared dead by all three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC exercised extreme caution as the story painfully and arduously unfolded yesterday. Gradually it grew less and less likely that President Sadat had survived the attack, even though the first network reports described his gunshot wounds as minor and raised the possibility that he would soon be out of surgery.
Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchorman, called into service early in the coverage, warned his replacement, Rather, against accepting without question those first reports that the injuries to Sadat were not serious. Trepidation was the order of the day, as network news personnel moved into roles to which they, and the viewing public, have become agonizingly accustomed.
ABC's Reynolds more than any other network newsman let the tragedy of the day's events show in his face and his delivery; as before, he was more than a messenger. He assumed a consoling and commiserating role. His kind of demonstrative involvement with the story -- "this dreadful news" -- may be increasingly important to viewers as Crisis Television becomes more and more common, and as the possibility that we will all grow numb to these public tragedies grows more likely.
There was some irony in the fact that all three networks kept stressing how unofficial the reports of Sadat's death were -- as they did from about 10 a.m. until the actual announcement of the death in Cairo -- since it is television that makes anything "official" for most Americans. Sadat's death probably became official here when Rather heard CBS News correspondent Scotti Williston say from Cairo shortly before 10:30 that her sources indicated Sadat had died.
In the scramble to cover the story in the face of what was almost an information blackout, the networks dragged in innumerable correspondents who quoted innumerable unnamed sources as to the condition of Sadat. Some correspondents expressed peevish umbrage at the lack of official statements from Cairo and from the White House, as if these institutions had a mandate to keep the networks informed as a first priority.
On the Cable News Network, correspondent Daniel Schorr called the White House "ham-handed" for the way it was dealing with news of the assassination and the way Vice President George Bush had instructed Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker to announce Sadat's death on the Senate floor long before confirmation had come out of Cairo. This helped increase the confusion quotient on the air.
Again, as with the past two 1981 assassination attempts, conflicting reports were aired within moments of each other and the nation became firsthand witness to the newsgathering process -- in a way, part of the newsgathering process. These monumental crises tend to divide the world into newsgatherers and newsmakers.
Reynolds was especially -- and somehow comfortingly -- unguarded. When the Bush-Baker story broke, and after a White House denial reported by Sam Donaldson, Reynolds decided to consult Capitol Hill reporter Brit Hume. "Get Brit for me," he said on the air, "I'd like to get more information on that. Hold on, Sam, let me talk to Brit." Reynolds began talking into a telephone on camera. "Hello, Brit? Brit . . ." Viewers heard only Reynolds' side of the conversation but could watch the concerned look on his face as he spoke. "Brit, go to your camera position, will you?" Reynolds said finally. "Get in a better position where we can talk to you."
Bell remained on the air with Reynolds throughout the day's coverage. An ABC News spokesman denied that Bell was there to keep Reynolds under control; during the Reagan shooting coverage, Reynolds exploded on the air because he was getting conflicting reports on Brady's condition. Reynolds never lost his composure yesterday, although over footage of crowds in Libya apparently cheering the attack on Sadat, Reynolds said sadly, as two little boys waved into the camera lens, "Look at this -- children expressing their joy at the death of a man by violence." One might call this emotional grandstanding, yet it did not seem inappropriate or forced.
Occasionally, the scramble for sources who would say anything became ludicrous. ABC's Barbara Walters appeared on camera at one point to say, "Three minutes ago I received a call from an Egyptian who said that he wished not to give his name but that he had some information for me." Earlier, Walters dutifully reported that a press secretary in Cairo had refused to confirm Sadat had died but that he sounded to her "like a man deeply grieved." Former president Jimmy Carter was enlisted as a correspondent for CBS News; Carter assured Rather by telephone from Plains, Ga., in mid-morning, that according to his sources in Cairo, Sadat had not been seriously wounded.
Even former ABC News Washington bureau chief Carl Bernstein turned up on camera to speculate about the possibility of a coup in Egypt. The day also marked the first appearance on ABC of David Brinkley, for the previous 38 years an institution at NBC News. Brinkley played the part of wise sage, expressing regret that his first assignment at ABC News was keyed to a tragedy ("but we don't make the news") and congratulating "the guys" at ABC for the job they had done so far.
Reporters scoured the landscape for clues to Sadat's condition, finding them wherever they could -- as in the fact that Cairo television had gone abruptly off the air, returning later with prayer readings from the Koran. The position of the flag outside the Egyptian Embassy here was also studied; it changed at least twice during the morning.
Reynolds frankly conceded the iffiness of available reportage to viewers: "So once again we are in one of those terrible dilemmas where we have seemingly reliable information but it cannot be authenticated, and there's nothing we can do but wait for the official announcement, if and when it comes."
Once the Egyptian government lifted the satellite ban, the footage began pouring out, and NBC put it on the air live, and unedited, joined later by ABC and, much later, by CBS, which had hastily returned to the hollow trauma of its daytime soaps ("Search for Tomorrow"). Some of the footage was from Egyptian TV, but all of the footage showing the shooting was shot by ABC's Moussos. Technically, the other networks did not automatically have the right to air it, but an NBC News spokesman said later that everything was declared "pool stuff" as it came over on "the bird."
The rules were, an ABC spokesman said, in the tech-talk of global video, "Whoever got birded out first would be pooled." At first ABC said the other networks could use its footage only once, and a spokesman said ABC was miffed that NBC had identified the footage as "Egyptian Television," when it was shot for ABC News. Later, ABC News decided to let the other networks continue to use the footage as long as it was attributed to ABC.
By the time Americans returned home to their TV sets last evening, that footage had already been played, replayed, freeze-framed and edited, and joined by the Krauss footage which had made it to Rome. Soon scenes that were monstrous and horrifying the first time would grow tame through repeated exposure. Those who saw the scenes on the evening news would never know the suspense, or the shock, of experiencing them as the finale to a long day's vigil before the television set, or of not only seeing but feeling the story unfold from a distant region still considered by many Americans to be unpredictable and inscrutable.
"Tragically," said Reynolds, as he left the air, "we know what our lead story is going to be tonight." A long day's television was almost over. How many more days like it will we see in our lifetimes?