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KENNEDY PLANE CRASH

Media Pull Out All the Stops, Jettison Scheduled Programs

July 18, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The broadcast networks jettisoned children's shows and sports coverage, joining cable news networks in a somber daylong vigil after John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane was reported missing early Saturday morning.

From just after 5 a.m. PDT, when the news first broke on NBC, television news called anchors in from vacation spots and sent their helicopters into the air over the ocean for virtually nonstop coverage of the search for Kennedy's plane.

As the son of the nation's 35th president and publisher of George magazine, the disappearance of the handsome Kennedy, a celebrity in his own right, fueled a media frenzy. At a Pentagon briefing, questions came not just from the usual newspapers and network news organizations, but People magazine, which on numerous occasions featured Kennedy on its pages.

People, which often puts out a special issue when a major story breaks, was instead caught in a bind: a significant portion of the staff had flown to Portugal on Friday for the magazine's 25th anniversary celebration, a spokeswoman said. Staffers had originally planned to stay through Thursday, but many were instead flying back to the U.S. on Saturday after the news broke.

Many journalists were put in the awkward situation of covering not just the disappearance of a public figure but a personal friend whom they knew from media circles.

Anchor Diane Sawyer was noticeably missing from ABC News' coverage, which included most of the network's other top anchors; one person familiar with the situation said Sawyer, a friend of Kennedy's, was too emotional to go on the air. ABC declined to comment.

The broadcast networks gave up millions of dollars in advertising revenue to carry the news reports, which ran almost completely without commercials. CBS preempted its planned golf tournament coverage completely; ABC bumped its golf match and a men's soccer match to ESPN sister cable channels, while NBC's golf and women's basketball coverage went to sister cable outlet CNBC.

ABC, CBS and NBC scheduled special news reports for Saturday night and said they expected to devote their Sunday news programs to the story.

The networks' anchors trekked in from weekend haunts. ABC News' Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters came back from the Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y.; NBC News' Tom Brokaw came in from Connecticut. Charles Gibson, co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning America," had coincidentally been on vacation on Cape Cod and quickly made his way to the Kennedy compound in nearby Hyannis Port.

CBS News' Dan Rather, who broke the news to the nation of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, was on the air from 6:15 a.m. PDT on.

Print publications also mobilized. Time and Newsweek said they planned to increase significantly the number of magazines they print this week; as of Saturday night, it was unclear how late they would have to push their normal deadlines, which are early Sunday morning.

Allure magazine, meanwhile, said it wasn't able to pull its upcoming issue, already printed, which carries a two-page spread on the public style of Kennedy's wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The issue is expected to be on newsstands toward the end of the week.

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