I wonder where instant information is taking us. Some of the signs we saw last Monday were less than comforting.
To be sure, television coverage of the attempted assassination of President Reagan gets some high marks. Initial tapes of the shooting, produced by the standard procedure of covering whatever the president does publicly, were not only graphic, but also provided us with some reassurance. The president was alive. The Secret Service had acted quickly and efficiently. The apparent assailant was in custody. There was no visible evidence that others were involved. The three other victims were receiving medical attention.
Uncertainty about where the president was going is understandable since he himself was unaware that he was wounded. But then, faster than we could assimilate it all, the news scramble began. Mr. Reagan was on his way to the hospital to see Press Secretary James Brady. No, he himself was wounded. Mr. Brady was critically injured. No, Mr. Brady had died. No, Mr. Brady was alive but his condition was grave.
The president was in surgery, had come out of surgery, was still in surgery.
A radio reporter who had slipped into a part of the hospital where he had no business had talked to an acquaintance who knew somebody on the hospital's staff. Unaccountably, there was the reporter delivering his unconfirmed, secondhand information live on a network news conference of his own. By now the president was undergoing open-heart surgery. Then, no, it wasn't open-heart surgery.
The scene shifted to the White House where, presumably, the information apparatus was thrown off by the absence of Mr. Brady, so the deputy press secretary, who knew too little, was hammered into saying more than he could. That may or may not have brought on the secretary of state, who knew too much, or at least gave that impression. The White House's own contingency planning needs some attention.
Still the national, and international, understanding of what was going on was confused until the appearance of two other people, early in the evening: presidential aide Lyn Nofziger who handled himself very well, and the remarkable Dr. Dennis O'Leary, who deserves more credit than any other single figure for claiming our fears.
For the better part of five hours -- a long time -- national shock had been intensified by contradictory information. Part of it can be credited to the agony of making sense out of chaos, but other blame falls on the pressure of competitive news gathering, the frenzy to be first. We were getting the raw materials of a developing story with its starts, stops and blind alleys, and with too many of the fact unconfirmed. The stakes were too high for that, the danger of misinformation too great. We were all swept up in an overwhelming event. It was hardly the time for error.
I hope the networks worry about the distortions they gave us last Monday afternoon. I hope they ask themselves what would happen if -- given the same ratio of mistakes -- an emergency of a different nature, say a calamitous natural disaster or, God forbid, an armed attack should come our way with thousands or millions of people approaching panic.
I hope they understand that their powerful medium, in time of stress, produces a common experience for us all.
I hope -- but after last Monday, I'm not convinced. In all that rush to report I seemed to hear the ominous ticking of a clock.