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Like Glenn, Media Swoon Has Grown Old

October 30, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Discovery left the ground at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, zoomed toward the heavens and soon was a white golf ball in a field of blue.

"So far, picture perfect," Dan Rather said on CBS.

Very nice. Thursday's space shuttle blastoff was anticlimactic, though, compared to the media's relentless launching of John Glenn.

Lots of Americans may have swooned over October's Glenn glut, featuring chats with his family, trips to his hometown for the customary anecdotes and profiles galore detailing every molecule of his life. But surely many others now know more about the Democratic senator from Ohio than they ever intended to know or wanted to know.

TV fired up the ticker-tape parade long before Discovery went into orbit and was largely so reverential that it appeared CNN, for example, would be changing its logo to Glenn's bronzed baby shoes.

Wasn't this just like the 24-hour news channels and others in TV news to have taken a legitimatelygood story--the 77-year-old Glenn's return to space after three dozen years--and pump it with steroids ad nauseam? And in the process of overselling it, chiseling Glenn into Mt. Rushmore?

Left on the pad once more were judgment and restraint.

Glenn on Thursday became not only the oldest man in space but also the most advertised and glorified, as represented by this quote from Wednesday's worshipful PBS documentary about the man being widely hailed as an American hero: "Once again, John Glenn put his life on the line."

So went the fawners, as well as the skeptics. "I saw his picture on the cover of Life magazine saying, 'I'm proud to serve,' " cracked Bill Maher on ABC's "Politically Incorrect" Wednesday night. "As if we asked him."

You easily could have gotten the impression from coverage in some circles that Glenn would be soaring in Discovery alone. Typical was this promo: "CNN will bring you every moment of John Glenn's historic return to space." And there was this Thursday morning banner across a Los Angeles area newspaper: "Nation Prays Godspeed, John Glenn." Talk about your upstaging.

For the record, Glenn's fellow crew members--resembling Disciples at the Last Supper when TV cameras were called in to shoot them at breakfast with him Thursday morning--are shuttle commander Curtis L. Brown, Scott E. Parazynski, Steven W. Lindsey, Stephen K. Robinson, Chiaki Mukai and Pedro Duque.

Yet portraying Glenn as a hero was just the right P.R. stuff for the space program, which historically moves in and out of oblivion when it comes to national priorities. It was Glenn, and Glenn alone, who motivated the breadth of the media's Thursday laser-lock on the Kennedy Space Center, where the shuttle launch was televised live nearly wall to wall--all the way across the TV cosmos to C-SPAN and the Discovery Channel.

Along with Walter, who was beside his young co-anchor Miles O'Brien on Thursday when CNN got its heavily promoted prelaunch interview with President Clinton (just before NBC's Brokaw snared Vice President Al Gore by satellite). Clinton finessed the question when asked by Cronkite where he stood on the U.S. going to Mars. But you could tell from Cronkite's own zest that somewhere deep in his mind the venerable newsman was on Mars already.

There are more benefits to this Glennmania. For one thing, it's been Monica-free. Some of us will take Glenn and his baby shoes over that story any day.

For another, given so much emphasis on youth by television, both in front of and behind the camera, how refreshing to see a shuttle deliver an homage to age, even while granting an extended photo-op to someone whose image is driving a NASA merchandising tie-in that includes new John Glenn action figures now packing the shelves of toy stores.

On Wednesday, KABC-TV news visited a senior center where residents--some of the older crowd that TV's entertainment shows so often ignore, stereotype or ridicule--saw Glenn as a positive role model. A 93-year-old woman was among those giving him thumbs up.

The irony here is that Glenn is deemed qualified by NASA for prime-time orbiting, and soon-to-be-82 Cronkite by CNN for space coverage, while others their ages are blackballed from prime-time TV. Godspeed to them in getting noticed by TV's pre-pubescent-minded executives.

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