It was one of those television moments that will live forever in the minds of those who saw it - like John-John saluting his father's coffin, Nixon waving his final salute as he boarded the presidential helicopter for the last time, Iranian students burning American flags outside the American Embassy and the sickening cloud of smoke spreading across the Florida sky where the space shuttle Challenger used to be.
There was ABC's World Series broadcast team, set to anchor the third game of the 1989 World Series from the press box at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. They were facing away from the field, talking to viewers about the key elements of evening's match-up, when their was a noticeable shakiness on camera and in Al Michaels' voice."I'll tell you what's going on," Michaels said with palpable concern edging his voice. "We're having an earth . . . "
And then the screen went fuzzy.
You didn't have to be a "Wheelie" to be able to complete the phrase. If this was San Francisco, it must be an earthquake. The only question unanswered was: how much of an earthquake? Was it just another one of those tremors that rock the West Coast every other month? Or was it a shocker, a San Francisco Earthquake that would make the arm bashing of the Oakland A's seem like toddlers playing patty-cake.
If you stayed with ABC for very long, it was hard to tell. While the network struggled to get a picture back on the air, Michaels' voice returned quickly, assuring us that although the quake was indeed powerful, the stadium was still standing and everything seemed to be OK. The first concern on everyone's mind seemed to be whether or not the earthquake would impact the critical game about to be played.
But soon it became evident that there was more at stake in Northern California on Tuesday night than Bay-area baseball bragging rights. And television's immediate coverage of the disaster lends insight to both the strengths and the weaknesses of contemporary TV news.
ABC, with all of its resources focused on Candlestick, had the best coverage in the early going. With the Goodyear blimp in the sky, Bay-area resident Michaels in the booth and Ted Koppel anchoring from Washington, ABC made a quick transition from sports to news, much as they did during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich when terrorists kidnapped and executed members of Israel's Olympic team. Michaels was superb in describing what he was seeing in the ballpark and on his television monitor, and Koppel was pointedly calm in relaying news and information as it became available.
On cable, CNN and ESPN also had quick and able coverage, with CNN relying on local San Francisco reporters and ESPN using its World Series correspondents as well as the best satellite footage available. CBS came to the story a little later, but quickly made up ground on the strength of Dan Rather's trademark coolness in crisis and incisive questioning. NBC and Tom Brokaw were the last to sign on with the story, ostensibly because their San Francisco affiliate, KRON, was knocked out for a while by the quake.
The coverage was generally responsible, with everyone taking great pains to avoid guessing at a death toll despite pictures that made it dreadfully clear many lives had been lost. Some of the footage was remarkable, including a home video view of a car going over the edge of a broken bridge. But we kept seeing many of the same visuals again and again, a constant reminder that no matter how anxious we are for new information, TV news is still subject to the availability of material.
It was only when casualty figures started coming in that things got confusing - and frustrating. While Koppel kept trying to tell us that there were only six or seven confirmed deaths, reporters for KRON and other San Francisco-area station were relaying estimates ranging from 40 to 250. The uncertainty of the situation, which may not be fully comprehended for many days, was an overwhelming challenge for TV newscasters who are much better suited to disseminating information that can be summarized RIGHT NOW - and in 30 seconds or less.
But if television's relentless pursuit of unanswerable questions was occasionally grating as Tuesday made its way toward Wednesday, the medium's therapeutic value in times of crisis was never more welcome. NBC and CNN stayed with the story through the night, providing concerned viewers with as much information as was available in a city that had grown dark and frightening. From the moment the quake interrupted ABC's World Series pre-game show until well into the day Wednesday, there wasn't a moment when some kind of information about the quake and its aftermath wasn't available somewhere.
And that's one of the wonderful things about the age of communication we live in. When an event of far-reaching impact happens, television can take us there. We can see it happen. We can feel the tension and the concern. In a way, we almost become part of the event. And as we share in the experience with those who actually are there, we are somehow drawn together as a people and as a nation. It isn't their problem - it's ours, thanks to the melting pot effect of television news.
Local television news also contributed to this feeling of a shared tragedy. KTVX's John Harrington did some good work at the Salt Lake International Airport, where he interviewed airline passengers who were being forced to layover in Salt Lake on their way to the Bay area. KSL's Ed Yeates, who has done considerable research into Utah's own earthquake potential, provided some insights Tuesday night as well as during the "Focus" program Wednesday morning. And KUTV's Dave Fox even turned serious long enough to acknowledge how little the cancellation of the World Series game meant compared to the tragic events in the Bay area. Then he went to "Plays of the Weak."
Inappropriate? No way. His light-hearted feature was a nice change of pace from the trauma that dominated the rest of the newscast. And viewers who had been following the story from Michaels' startling opening probably appreciated being able to watching something that was a little less . . . well, earth-shaking.
-ON TV TONIGHT: At press time, there was a possibility that The World Series (6 p.m., Ch. 4) could resume tonight. If not, expect regular series programming on ABC (Ch. 4), including Mission: Impossible (7 p.m.), The Young Riders (8 p.m.) and PrimeTime Live (9 p.m.), which will probably spend a lot of time on the earthquake aftermath. You'll likely see the same thing on 48 Hours (7 p.m., Ch. 5), which was scheduled to report on beauty pageants.
Elsewhere, bodybuilder Rachel McLish hosts a look at Women of the 21st Century (8 p.m., Ch. 5); The Disney Channel repeats Cinderella (7 p.m., DSN); The Thorn Birds (6 p.m., WGN) continues; and Henry Fonda and John Wayne star in John Ford's classic Western, Fort Apache (8:15 p.m., TNT).