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THE CRASH OF FLIGHT 800 : Crash Coverage Turned Into Disaster for MSNBC


Thursday was the day that camera crews camped en masse outside the Garden Grove home of Ralph Kevorkian, a TWA pilot said to have been in the cockpit of doomed Flight 800.

"The drapes are drawn," reported Jason Carroll of KCBS-TV, solemn either because of the occasion or because Kevorkian's wife could not be found and no one else was available to assault. Stations later told of more Southland residents being aboard the doomed flight. Quick, men, to their houses!

One was in Calabasas, where KABC-TV's John North reported Thursday night from the living room of someone whose sister and niece went down with Flight 800.

From tragedy to tragedy, the stakeouts, live shots and tenacious pursuits of tears are common denominators that endure, at times creating victims of their own to sacrifice on the altar of the public's right to know. Talk about terrorism.

Some things are new, though, one being the meeting of crash site and Web site on the Internet.

Thus did Mary Kathleen Flynn report on MSNBC Thursday that someone had created a "home page" to pass along electronic condolences to friends and families of the Paris-bound travelers who died in the crash of Flight 800.

Who else but MSNBC, itself interactive to the max, would note this obscure, yet fascinating factoid of technology? So . . . is MSNBC indeed today's new chat room for TV's smarty-pants set, a powerful energizer of inquiring minds? Not immediately, it seems, for its umbilical cord was showing Wednesday night.

Newborn MSNBC--the enormously ambitious cable news-and-information network created by NBC and Microsoft Corp.--faced its first severe test when Flight 800 exploded and crashed off the coast of Long Island, killing all of its 230 passengers and crew and leaving bodies and debris bobbing in fuel-flamed waters.

The scene was not much prettier inside the Fort Lee, N.J., studios of MSNBC, which for several hours Wednesday sought to pull out of its own fiery nose dive. "Stay with us," apologetic anchor Brian Williams urged viewers after 40 minutes of fumbling crash coverage in which little went right and the nation's newest network of record appeared astonishingly unready for live coverage of such a calamity. Williams promised: "We're gonna try to do better."

MSNBC did do better that evening, only its third on the air. But it took some time, during which MSNBC often gave the impression of being up and running on legs presently meant only for crawling, that it was too hastily launched to coincide with its NBC parent's coverage of the Summer Olympics.

In striking contrast to MSNBC's floundering, disaster-tested CNN (been there, done that) was grand in those critical early hours when information about the crash of the Boeing jumbo jet was especially thin and fragmentary, a situation it had faced often in its 16-year history.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, some stations interrupted regular programs with periodic updates, and nationally, ABC News whisked in Peter Jennings to astutely anchor a short prime-time block on the crash.

But the nose-to-nose duel between cable's 24-hour news hounds is especially captivating now. MSNBC preceded CNN by several minutes in announcing the crash during "The News With Brian Williams," its centerpiece newscast that was extended to late in the evening, joining CNN in going commercial-free.

Thereafter it was a couple of steps behind CNN, as MSNBC--with Williams doing the anchoring and many of the senior NBC reporters it utilizes already in Atlanta for Olympics coverage--seemingly baffled about what to do with this breaking story.

Distracted by messages he was hearing through his earpiece, Williams was in a bumpy holding pattern without a parachute, at times stammering and appearing rattled (though not panicky) while waiting for MSNBC to rustle up Robert Hager, a veteran NBC correspondent whose beat is aviation. Given the daunting assignment of being informative minus information, however, Hager proved no savior, an example being an exchange that began with Williams, glancing wishfully toward a monitor, assuring (or praying aloud) that Hager would furnish "probably new" data.

Following an awkward pause, Hager was on the screen from his position in Atlanta's Olympic Village, giving viewers the latest hot scoop: "I don't have anything new yet." Williams: "All right, keep at it."

They both kept at it, at times resorting to schmoozing ("I recall another incident . . . "). If not that, Williams resorted to reading wire reports cold, at one point twisting to his right and addressing someone off camera: "Do you have anything new? Just bring it on here." Whereupon he was handed a sheet of paper that he quickly scanned before telling viewers it contained what he had already reported. And so it went, with what could go wrong going wrong, MSNBC's early plight and its anchor's out-of-body encounters compounded by repeated technical glitches.

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