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Shuttle Disaster

Parade, tragedy meant awkward shift for TV news

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003

It wasn't long after realizing the fate of space shuttle Columbia Saturday that WFLA-Ch. 8 reporter Rod Challenger had another jarring thought.

How do I get this makeup off my face?

That's because Challenger had already filed a report at 9 a.m. Saturday from the Gasparilla Pirate Fest parade, showing off fake scars and claiming to have been "abducted" and "tortured" by the parade organizers, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.

But by 9:30 a.m., the day's news coverage shifted from celebrating the parade to documenting the tragedy.

"I told (WFLA producers) "I've got my pirate face on.' I didn't think it would be right to do that sort of story in some sort of festive get-up," said Challenger, who fought traffic back to the station to take off his makeup and get back to the parade to document public reaction. "(People) were all eager to talk about it. . . . like therapy."

For area TV news outlets, the shift in coverage was complicated by a parade that drew about 550,000 people to downtown Tampa. WFLA and Bay News 9 pulled on-air staffers from parade floats -- concerned they might be needed for coverage and aware that the image of a smiling anchor waving to bead-wearing crowds wouldn't suit the tenor of the moment.

WFLA, which had planned to broadcast live from the parade at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, brought Bob Hite to its studios, where the anchor traded pirate togs for a sportscoat and tie as he delivered news breaks at the top of every hour. Live-to-videotape coverage of the parade, hosted by morning anchors Bill Ratliff and Gayle Guyardo, aired much later, at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday.

"That was probably the strangest order I've ever had to give: "If we have anybody out there in pirate garb, get out of it now,' " said Forrest Carr, news director at WFLA.

"You've got (parade) coverage . . . and let's face it, it's showbiz," added Carr, noting that the station's programming department supervised the parade broadcast, not its news department. "All of a sudden, the same people you've got covering this thing have to turn around and (cover the tragedy). Nobody knew how to act."

At Bay News 9, general manager Elliott Wiser asked anchor Al Ruechel to leave the parade and come to the station, with the weather forecasters remaining behind. Wiser said the 24-hour cable channel was the first local outlet to report on the story, offering continuous coverage until 4 p.m. Saturday.

Wiser has decided to stop showing footage of the shuttle disintegrating upon re-entry, equating continual replay of the images to overusing footage of the World Trade Center's twin towers collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001.

"I was in a newsroom in 1986 when the (space shuttle) Challenger blew up. . . . Two days later, we were still showing the video, and I remember the calls (from complaining viewers)," Wiser said. "I don't think it's necessary anymore."

Bill Berra, news director at ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28, disagreed, saying the footage "is already being projected around the world. It is news."

Local viewers might have thought the ABC/CNN merger came through early Saturday, as WFTS featured coverage from CNN with the network's logo superimposed. By 10:30 a.m., anchors Brendan McLaughlin and Martie Tucker were in the studio, offering coverage that lasted until after the president's 2 p.m. speech.

"In a lot of ways, this is a local story," Berra said. "We have retired military here, retired space center people living here. There's a lot more interest in this community than some others."

That's why CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 sent reporter Mike Deeson and a photojournalist to Houston to find locally relevant stories the networks may not be reporting (WTSP shares news and information with the St. Petersburg Times through a partnership). The station allowed morning show reporter Virginia Johnson to stay in the Gasparilla parade, sending three separate news crews to Florida's east coast. "We did talk about it, but like with every tragic event, life goes on," said Lane Michaelsen, news director at WTSP. "We decided it was best to (let) what was happening go on."

WTVT-Ch. 13 reporter Warren Elly put 20 years of experience covering NASA to work providing analysis for Fox News Channel through much of Saturday. WTVT stuck with simulcasting coverage from the cable channel until its 6 p.m. newscast Saturday, electing to keep Elly in town this week to monitor the story's progress from Tampa.

"In terms of information, the nexus of information is right here," said Phil Metlin, vice president of news for WTVT, noting the network owns three stations in Texas that can provide on-scene reports. "It's about reporting vs. showbiz."

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