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News doesn’t require wolf packs

SOMETIMES, national news coverage is disgusting. I learned this fact many years ago, when President Eisenhower flew to Charleston, en route to a conference at the Greenbrier. To meet his plane, I went to the airport with burly photographer Lew Raines, who looked like a lumbering bear, and often behaved like one.

A section of tarmac was marked off for the press. Lew and I stood at the front and waited. Lew carried one of those oldtime Speed Graphic cameras, big as a hatbox. Before Ike’s plane landed, the national press plane arrived, and we saw a remarkable sight: Dozens of noisy photographers burst out and galloped to our spot, yelling and jostling us.

As Eisenhower came down the plane steps, the national cameramen began shouting to him and elbowing each other. One crawled between Lew’s legs and stood in front of him, to get a prime view. Lew whopped the Graphic down onto the fellow’s head, knocking him to the asphalt. Others in the national group said, “Easy, buddy — didn’t you ever cover a major story before?”

Lew and I shook our heads all the way back to the Gazette newsroom. It was the first time we had seen the national media behave like a wolf pack.

Soon afterward, playwright Arthur Miller married actress Marilyn Monroe — and national reporters pursued the wedding party like a swarm of paparazzi. One was killed in a car crash during the news chase. Again, I felt that the national press was berserk.

The growth of TV news and 24-hour news channels magnified the “media circus” tendency. Networks began seizing certain events and ballooning them into extravaganzas. The Bill-and-Monica Show became an obsessive soap opera. So did the O.J. Simpson trial, the Laci Peterson case, etc. Sometimes it seems as if big-time TV news departments sift through hundreds of happenings around America, looking for one to turn into a spectacle.

During West Virginia’s mine tragedy last week, national news anchors seemed to hawk it like barkers, constantly telling viewers to stay tuned for more sensational details.

In Sunday’s paper, reporter Scott Finn told of his discomfort at the mine site, his unease for intruding into the anxiety and suffering of waiting families. Such feelings are common among reporters during tragedies. Yet it’s crucially important to convey information to the outside world, to explain what went wrong, and try to determine who was to blame.

At the little mine town, the arrival of network TV crews brought chaos. Satellite trucks jammed narrow roads, forcing distressed relatives to park far away and walk to the country church that was their refuge. As they walked, they were bombarded by news questions. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News dashed inside the church sanctuary during the final night’s tumult, thrusting himself amid family emotions.

Surely, it’s possible to avoid this overkill when an important event is occurring. During West Virginia’s last major mine disaster — the 1968 Farmington blast that killed 78 — we local reporters shared a temporary newsroom with national crews at the mine. I don’t remember any mob behavior or ugly conduct. It showed that reporting can be orderly, despite fierce competition between national news groups.

When the national press behaves like baying hounds, it’s a glaring contrast to the quiet daily work of local news reporters. The latter unobtrusively search for facts, cover events, delve through records, and frequently unearth scandals that bring prosecutions or reforms. That’s the press image I prefer.

Haught, the Gazette’s editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com.


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