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TV Networks Sprint Into Action

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 28, 1996; Page A26

A bomb goes off, and everything changes, at least a little.

NBC had just wrapped up an interview with swimmer Gary Hall Jr. and returned from a commercial break at 1:40 a.m. Saturday when Jim Lampley and Hannah Storm, anchors of NBC’s late-night Olympics show, broke the news to viewers that an explosion had occurred in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.

Atlanta-based CNN, spokesmen for the cable network said, broke the story 10 minutes earlier, because sports reporter Mark McKay was on his way to do a scheduled 1:30 report from within the park when he heard the explosion. He rushed to his camera position and anchor Andrea Zinge announced he was about to give a special report.

According to sources at all the networks, panic did not set in as they raced to cover the story—perhaps because the possibility of a terrorist act occurring at the Olympic Games had been mentioned so often, perhaps because terrorist acts are becoming lamentably commonplace in America’s weekly diet of news.

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw had been debating at midnight whether to return to New York on Sunday morning. He went back to his hotel, fell asleep and was awakened seven minutes after the blast by an NBC unit manager. Brokaw rushed back to the network’s broadcast center.

"There was chaos in the control room as I was trying to get my mike on," Brokaw said later yesterday. "I looked over at all the monitors and on one of them saw the KNBC news feed" from the NBC-owned Los Angeles affiliate. "They were interviewing a cameraman who had been there when the bomb went off. It was the best story of the night. I said, ‘Find out who the hell this guy is.’‚"

He turned out to be KNBC cameraman Mark Field, so NBC quickly put him on the air, too. Field had been standing on the sound-and-light tower during the evening’s rock concert when security people suddenly ordered him off because they had found a "suspicious package" near the base of the tower. Field managed to get the only video picture of that suspicious package, the satchel in which the bomb was apparently carried onto the grounds.

ABC News was on the air with its first report on the bombing at 2:19 a.m., with anchor Antonio Mora handling the story. CBS aired its first report at 2:34 a.m. with anchor John Roberts. Many of the network anchors and correspondents stayed on the air through the morning. Brokaw was on the air from 2:15 a.m. until noon.

As the hours passed without a break, he occasionally misspoke, at one point reporting more than 100 fatalities from the bomb when he meant casualties, at another saying that those wounded were "superficial," rather than that their wounds were.

"I was on the air for 10 hours, so I probably said a lot of dumb things," Brokaw said later. Early in the reporting of the story, Brokaw said, NBC heard from a reliable source that four people had died in the blast, and this was reported on the air—then later corrected to say that one person had died of injuries sustained and that a Turkish TV cameraman died of a heart attack while racing to report the story.

Just after 11:30 a.m., an NBC reporter said that "hundreds were injured" but this was quickly corrected by Brokaw to "a hundred-plus were injured."

NBC owns the 26th Olympiad, having paid $456 million for the TV rights, so other news organizations have not had access to Olympic venues or been allowed to air live news conferences by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). But this restriction was lifted for 24 hours once news of the bomb blast became known. NBC served as a pool for one news conference, allowing other networks to pick up its live feed.

"For the most part, there was no problem," said Ed Turner, senior vice president of CNN, from Atlanta. "There was just briefly some trouble at the IOC. That went away when we threatened to get nasty." He declined to elaborate and said relations with NBC and the Olympic committees had gone smoothly.

Asked, however, if he felt humbled by NBC’s unusual access to such a big story in CNN’s own backyard (CNN headquarters are right next door to the park where the bomb went off), Turner said, "Not at all. We’ve done just fine. We have won the gold."

CNN continued with coverage of the aftermath of the bombing at noon, when NBC returned to its regularly scheduled Olympic competition—rowing, tennis, even beach volleyball. The tone of the telecast was much subdued, however.

Before yesterday’s competition resumed, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol cautioned announcers. "I told our people that we should be engaged in covering the competition," Ebersol told the Associated Press. "When there are exciting moments, get excited. But the one gene they should lose today is the humor gene."

Both Brokaw and Turner were asked if the excess of reports on Olympic security measures prior to the Games—and following the crash of TWA Flight 800—might have been seen as a dare by a potential terrorist, perhaps even encouraged an act like the bombing.

"I don’t know," Brokaw said. "How can you second-guess any of this? When 800 happened, we did ratchet up our coverage of security in Atlanta and maybe that did seem like some kind of open invitation to a psychopath. But I don’t know how you can control that sort of thing. Does the Olympic committee say, ‘Well, we may create a psychopath, so let’s not let any of this out’?"

Turner rejected the idea there had been too many reports on security at the Games: "I don’t think you can do too much on security. The danger as I see it is that when you have four or five networks covering something like this, with all that opinion going out, there can be a rush to judgment by viewers as to who did it, who’s guilty and who’s innocent.

"I have to keep watch over our organization to make sure we’re not in the business of rampant speculation. Irresponsibly guessing and assuming and speculating at a time like that can do additional damage to the national psyche. You have to be damn careful."

Brokaw also was asked if NBC, with so many millions of dollars in ad revenue at stake, played a role in the decision to continue with the Olympic Games in spite of the bomb. "I honestly don’t think that they did," he said, "but I honestly don’t know."

NBC had computer animation of the Olympic site that had been used for its coverage of the Games and could pinpoint for viewers the exact spot where the bomb had been placed—as well as having the only video of the satchel in which the bomb was believed to have been hidden.

But CNN lucked out when Robert Gee, a tourist from California, came into its offices and volunteered an eyewitness account. He also had a home video camera and the best pictures—though shot from a distance—of the bomb actually exploding. Gee also was extremely articulate in describing the scene for viewers—perhaps better than many reporters would have been.

CNN paid Gee for the video but declined repeatedly to say how much. Turner called it a "modest fee." CNN also directed Gee to AP so he could sell stills from the video to the wire service. Both CBS News anchor Dan Rather and ABC anchor Peter Jennings are on vacation and did not materialize during the continuing coverage, as they normally would have. ABC reporter Judy Muller was on the job in Atlanta from 2:30 a.m. on. She had scheduled an interview with Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell on the roof of the International Sports Plaza at 9:30 a.m., an ABC News spokeswoman said, but by that time security had been tightened so much that the mayor was barred from entering the building. The interview was taped later at the ABC News bureau.

"Our main problem," said a CNN spokesman, "has been too many people coming in and wanting to work. Making people go home and rest was the biggest problem we had."

On the air, Brokaw spoke of the apparent terrorist act as "this terrible tragic intrusion" on the Olympic Games and called yesterday "a day of terror in Atlanta."

It was a day of terror for the whole country, maybe the whole world, and yet watching, one may have felt less shocked than one wanted to be. Shocks and tragedies are becoming so common, and we learn of them so quickly. On NBC, a woman in Miami, asked for her reaction to the bombing, said: "The whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. That’s all I can say."

Anybody really want to argue with that?

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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