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Was Couric's coup scored at a cost?

December 23, 2002|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- The danger of the morning news show competition for interviews was evident last week in the tears streaming down a 9-year-old boy's face.

Two days after four boys drowned in Lawrence, Mass., after plunging through thin ice on the Merrimack River, the "Today" show's Katie Couric interviewed Jaycob Morales, 10, and Francis Spraus, 9, the two boys fished out of the river alive on Dec. 14.

After the talkative Morales was through, Couric addressed a question to Spraus, who had tried unsuccessfully to hang on to a 7-year-old friend who died before his eyes. When the camera turned to him, Spraus was sobbing. He could barely talk. Couric asked another question.

"It's OK," she said. "You don't have to. That's OK. But can you describe at least what it is, what you felt like in the water, Francis?"

"It's just so hard for me," he replied. "It was cold, too. I thank God that God gave me another life."

The gut-wrenching interview was soon over. It was a competitive coup for NBC's "Today" on a story its rivals also reported.

But at what cost?

Some people like to talk their way through a traumatic episode, said Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist affiliated with the University of Vermont. But not always, he said.

"It can actually exacerbate the impact of a trauma to push kids to tell their story or to encourage extensive contact with the media," Fassler said. "It can definitely make it worse. Kids need to work through these experiences in their own way and at their own pace."

Both ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" on CBS aired filmed reports about the tragedy that contained brief sound bites from either Morales or Spraus.

A freelance booker from "Good Morning America" made two inquiries about interviews but backed off, said Shelley Ross, the show's executive producer.

"We put on the air what we wanted to put on the air," Ross said.

Sometimes there's so much excitement in booking a big interview that producers don't consider what they booked, said Michael Bass, executive producer of "The Early Show" and a former high-level staff member at "Today." CBS didn't pursue a live interview in this case.

"The frenzy of the chase and the excitement of it sometimes clouds your journalistic judgment," Bass said.

Tom Touchet, executive producer of "Today," acknowledged the Merrimack River interview "was a really tough call." He doesn't second-guess it because he believes Couric did a good job handling the emotional situation. He said it was an important interview to warn parents about the dangers of thin ice.

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