Like a swarm of indignant bees, the usual assortment of media analysts has been released into the airwaves to buzz around TV's coverage of the Challenger tragedy and apply the occasional sting. This particular shot of a grieving family member was held too long, perhaps, or that anchorperson got too carried away with emotion, or that other anchorperson didn't get carried away enough.
Some of the complaints are legitimate, others ridiculous, but the overriding fact is that network coverage of the space shuttle's explosion, and its long aftermath, appeared to be the work of a great many people who were trying not only to report the event but also, as best they could, to Do the Right Thing.
If we replayed all the coverage right now we would find many things to object to, no doubt; live, breaking-news coverage is a nit-picker's paradise. But taken as a whole the coverage was serious and moving, and some of the pictures unforgettable, and television itself, as it rarely does, became a source not only of news but of comfort.
We wouldn't know what to tell those hundreds of people who, on the day of the explosion, telephoned networks and TV stations demanding that their soap operas be put back on the air at once. Television's sk,2 sw,-2 ld,10 output of manufactured life is so relentless that some viewers simply sink into it, never to be seen in the real world again. Most people, it seemed, were riveted to the coverage, not just because this was "drama" but because it was an occasion that aroused the deepest and most universal kind of concern. Commentators were quick to label that concern an American phenomenon, but it probably has more to do with just being human.
Through television, we mourned the astronauts and grieved for their families as if we knew them all personally. One crotchety media critic who appeared on TV during the coverage derided the concept of television as "a national hearth" (a very old concept) and insisted that TV was just an appliance, like a microwave oven. Indeed, it is an appliance, but at the moment, it was the only appliance in the house with a heart. You could see it beating.
Inevitably, footage of the actual explosion was replayed so many times it became almost meaningless, but there were many other powerful images to replace it. We saw pictures we thought we would remember forever. It could be a simple thing. A CBS correspondent interviewed a little boy who lived in the home town of astronaut Ronald E. McNair and who had met McNair and obtained an autographed picture of him. The little boy looked up at the correspondent and said McNair had been "my hero." Then he carefully replaced the picture in its envelope and stood there, on the street, looking lost. The entire tragedy was reflected in one child's wounded eyes.
At the memorial service in Houston, President Reagan said, "Words pale in the shadow of grief." But the pictures did not pale. Virtually every American could attend this national funeral and share in that grief -- feel it deeply and personally. It is often said that funerals are held for the living, and this one was too, a rite of expiation, of letting it all out.
The pungent images included a small American flag held up by an anonymous hand from within the crowd, and members of astronauts families tearfully embracing the president and first lady. But the one that seems most haunting still is the face of Alison Smith, the 14-year-old daughter of astronaut Michael J. Smith, who was trying with understandable difficulty to fight back tears. We felt for her grief and for the fact that we were intruding upon it. The public eye wept.
By the weekend, news programs were turning to the practical and political ramifications of the tragedy. Was manned space flight such a good idea? Should the space program be rethought? Questions of funding and administrative priorities didn't sound very important. We remembered the little boy on the street clutching an astronaut's photograph. We remembered Alison Smith. We remembered Christa McAuliffe alive and smiling as she boarded the space shuttle she thought would take her into orbit around the earth.
Trying to read something positive and/or patriotic into the way television and the audience responded to the Challenger disaster is probably a specious undertaking. But from some of the comments and reactions to the coverage, one gets the sense that the viewing nation was reassured to discover that it could still experience human feelings, that television can communicate them and that images are not rendered meaningless because they emerge from a box that produces images all day, every day, usually mindlessly and without effect. We didn't just sit there passively like zombies. We participated: We cried.
The coverage did go on for a long time. But this was an unusual case. This was special coverage. In a way, there had to be too much of it in order for there to be enough.