When Columbia blasted off on Jan. 16, it was not exactly big news. Most accounts focused on the presence of a man from Israel rather than the risk of flying into space.
"Shuttle Lifts Off With an Israeli Astronaut," said a New York Times story on Page 17.
"Israel hails flight of 1st son to space," said the Chicago Tribune's Page 3 report.
The Washington Post also ran a piece on Page 3. Newsday used a wire on Page 18. Even the Houston Chronicle, in the home of mission control, relegated the launch to Page 5. The network anchors read briefs. That's how routine shuttle flights had become.
Now, of course, there is no other story.
Politics is on hold, along with just about everything else. For the first time since 1986, the media are swarming over a space story, simultaneously trying to console the country and figure out, based on fragmentary information, how this could have happened.
The shock was not quite as immobilizing as when the Challenger blew up, at a time when most Americans simply didn't stop to consider that such things could happen. But it was a severe shock nonetheless.
Suddenly the media are filled with stories of NASA budget cuts, of past warnings about safety. These stories had been covered by beat reporters before, but how much attention had they received? How much television airtime? The media are famous for saturation coverage after a tragedy, but journalistic attention was obviously elsewhere before Saturday's explosion.
Last April, for example, Richard Blomberg, who had just stepped down as chairman of NASA's advisory board, told a House subcommittee that "I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now. . . . The current approach is planting the seeds for future danger." According to a database search, his testimony was covered only by the Orlando Sentinel, Associated Press and Gannett News Service.
The past neglect is, on one level, perfectly understandable. The media don't report that 99 planes landed safely yesterday. Back in the 1960s, the country stopped to watch Walter Cronkite narrate the drama of each manned space flight in the quest for a moon landing. People like John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were celebrities.
By the '90s, the no-big-deal, inside-the-paper routine of shuttle coverage was a testament to the program's success. How many Americans could have named a member of any recent shuttle crew? The high-tech press was all about online video and text-messaging cell phones and Segway scooters and housecleaning robots, not space missions.
That has abruptly changed, as the presence of Rather and Brokaw and Jennings made clear over the weekend. Now there will be weeks of scrutiny, soul-searching and media-led mourning. Now Columbia is no longer a big story only in Israel. Now the story belongs to the world.
The Ultimate Source
President Bush doesn't call columnists to shoot the breeze. But last week conservative pundits were brought in three groups to the Oval Office to hear pre-State of the Union spin from what the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes called "an extremely knowledgeable insider who insists on being called 'a senior administration official.' " That insider was POTUS himself.
Also getting the Bush treatment were the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot and Peggy Noonan, National Review's Rich Lowry and Kate O'Beirne, Washington Post syndicated columnists Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kelly, the Washington Times's Donald Lambro, Michael Barone of U.S. News, Fox's Cal Thomas and CNN's Robert Novak.
"They need convincing," a White House official says. "They're not with you 1,000 percent. But they tend to be sympathetic. There's no point in inviting Eleanor Clift."
The Chicago Tribune suffered a bit of embarrassment when the name of chief political reporter Rick Pearson turned up on a list of sponsors for state patronage jobs.
Pearson's wife, Margaret, was hired for a $39,000 post overseen by the Illinois secretary of state's office, then run by George Ryan, who stepped down as governor last month.
Pearson says he can't comment. But Deputy Managing Editor George de Lama says: "We talked to all the principals involved and we can't find any evidence to support the notion that Rick Pearson did anything to help his wife get a state job. . . . Rick has been incredibly straightforward, incredibly conscientious about telling his editors whenever his wife changed jobs."
The list, filled with political leaders and lobbyists, became public in the federal corruption trial of a former Ryan aide. The Chicago Sun-Times quoted Ryan as saying he recalled talking about Pearson's wife with his former consultant and that "it didn't hurt to have the name Pearson." But Ryan told the Tribune he wasn't involved in the hiring.
In a review of antiwar posters this month, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight slammed the Bush administration's "imbecilic plan for war with Iraq," which he said lacks a "coherent argument."
Which led to this knuckle-rapping editor's note: "It was, in our view, a gratuitous political statement and, as such, a distraction from the legitimate substance of the review. It should not have been published."
But Knight is unrepentant. He said in an online chat that "all art has a political dimension. . . . It seemed sensible to state my position on that subject matter right up front."