All the ingredients were there -- the hostage airplane, the commando raid, the imperiled Americans aboard -- but the networks showed a curious restraint yesterday in reporting on the tragedy in Malta, where a hijacked Egyptair jet was stormed by Egyptian commandos on Sunday. Even though 60 people died, more than in all the other recent hijackings combined, the network news departments seemed not to regard this as a blockbuster story.
For one thing, it was not a long, continuing saga but one that ended comparatively quickly. For another, video from Malta, where the jet sat on an airport runway, was crudely shot from a long distance and had to be flown to Rome before it could be satellited back to the United States.
And for another, although sources at all three networks deny such a possibility, it may be at least subconsciously felt in network news circles that Americans have had enough of hijack stories, at least those that do not end on a note of victory for the good guys. Perhaps the Malta story got played down by the broadcast media because it was feared the audience couldn't, wouldn't, take any more.
Television is a medium overrun with market strategists and obsessed with fears of giving offense. Even in many supposedly journalistic decisions, an element of showmanship is present. The networks had just come off the glow of the Geneva summit story and its prospects, however illusory, for a slowdown in the arms race. Couldn't it be that they were reluctant to blast viewers with heavy Malta coverage yesterday in part because they thought those viewers might balk at bad news this intense?
Sensitive to criticism that they have overcovered some previous terrorist stories, and thus gave a kind of aid if not comfort to terrorists, the networks may have undercovered this one.
All network news sources to whom this interpretation was presented yesterday rejected it categorically and said they thought the story received adequate coverage. But of the three networks, only NBC News scheduled a special report on the incident late Sunday night (ABC and CBS have regularly scheduled late Sunday newscasts, but not all affiliates carry them) and no network devoted its entire Monday morning news show to the story, as had been done previously with hijackings that did not end in massive armed attacks on airliners filled with dead bodies.
Grim footage from the scene did materialize late Sunday, but it consisted mainly of static shots of a smoking plane. On last night's network newscasts, the story finally took on a graphic immediacy, with pictures of bodies being carted off the airplane and the chilling taped recollections of survivors, including the pilot with bandages on his head.
Lawrence K. Grossman, president of NBC News, said from New York yesterday that the network news operation was moving into crisis posture over the weekend but that then the crisis ended. Grossman himself cut short by three days a trip to London and flew back Sunday to supervise coverage, and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw appeared on the network to anchor the late-night special and another that aired Sunday morning at 8.
Ironically or not, both Grossman and Brokaw had been out of the country at crucial moments of the TWA hijacking last summer, and the news operation sustained some criticism for the way it handled it. Grossman said yesterday that NBC News chartered a 747, the only plane available and sufficient for the job, to transport its earth station from Geneva, where it had been used for the summit, to Malta. But the story ended before the earth station could be installed.
"I will tell you, we gave a lot of thought to 'let's not overreact' because of all the bull last time about the way it was covered," Grossman said. "In terms of an incident like this, the second is never as crazy as the first, but so far as our coverage is concerned, we did not hold back." Grossman rejected the idea that the story got less coverage than it deserved.
One irregularity in the coverage on both NBC and CBS was a seeming departure from usual journalistic practice where unconfirmed deaths are concerned. On the late NBC report, Brokaw gave the name of a California woman who was a passenger on the plane and said that she "may have been murdered." On the "CBS Morning News" yesterday, anchor Faith Daniels said a woman had been killed and that "although there is no confirmation, it is believed that her last name is Rogenkams."
Normally, news organizations do not report such deaths unless they can confirm them, in part out of respect for relatives and friends of those involved. Grossman said yesterday that NBC News knew the woman to be dead and that "we probably should have just said it straight out" without the qualification.
"Good Morning America" at least found the story serious enough yesterday to jettison its usual jolly opening, including a bouncy musical theme and a "good morning" greeting from a pretaped person-on-the-street. But Phyllis McGrady, executive producer of the show, said modifying the opening is done routinely on days when "something is happening that morning and in progress as we go on the air."
All three morning news programs devoted their first half-hour exclusively to the Malta story, but then as the morning wore on it became less dominant. "The reason you didn't see the all-out two-hour devotion to the story was that the story was not still continuing," McGrady said. "You weren't asking yourself, 'Who are these people? What is going to happen next?' If the story was continuing to happen, you would have seen more emphasis on it."
McGrady said the absence of live or taped video from the scene of the incident was not a factor. The first half hour of "GMA" included a phone interview by David Hartman with Patrick Baker, an American survivor of the raid.
"CBS Morning News" began as usual, with smiles and chirps from the cohosts. It hadn't shifted into crisis mode. "We didn't think about canceling our open," said David Corvo, assistant executive producer of the program. He said coverage was restricted by the inaccessibility of the location. "We weren't able to generate that much material," Corvo said. "We ran everything we could get our hands on."
Corvo also said the story was of less interest than it might have been because there were "not as many Americans involved" as in the most recent hijacking, that of the Achille Lauro cruise liner. But McGrady said, "One American was killed, and that's enough American lives for this to be a big story."
Marty Ryan, senior producer of NBC's "Today" show, said the story dominated the program yesterday and that (as with the other two network shows) planned segments were moved or dumped to accommodate it. "I don't think it was played down," Ryan said. "With the other hijackings, the stories ran on for three, four or five days. This was basically over before 'Nightly News' on Sunday."
Much has been made of NBC's deficiencies in covering the TWA hijacking last summer. Apparently too much has been made. A Washington Post report that NBC Chairman Grant Tinker administered a "high-decibel rebuke" to Grossman was apparently erroneous. Grossman and other NBC sources said so yesterday and Tinker himself, reached in Los Angeles, said, "I have never rebuked Larry Grossman. In truth, we never did talk about it." Although he now thinks it might have been wise to bring Brokaw back from Africa earlier in the story, Tinker said he was satisfied with NBC's coverage.
NBC News sources expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their coverage of the Malta story, but it's not the kind of story that anybody can take a lot of pleasure in having reported. The question is whether the level of terrorism in the world has gone so high that networks now are slightly frightened by terrorist stories, at least those with tragic conclusions, on the grounds that the audience must be spared heavy exposure.
At the end of his report late Sunday, Brokaw dropped all pretense of objectivity and scowlingly referred to those killed or injured as "innocent American victims of mindless terrorism."
In an age of instant global access to a seemingly limitless supply of bad news, we may have passed the point of beheading the messenger who brings the bad news to us. Besides, it may be that this weekend, the messenger arrived with his head already in his hands. There are few terrorists, but there are many terrorized.