Tragedy and TV news

Nov. 22 marks 50 years since JFK’s assassination changed the nation. Nov. 25 ended four days of shock with his sad funeral, modeled after that of Lincoln. The nation was bound together as one around its TV sets all weekend. The Kennedy era had fostered modern TV news and my interest in aviation’s reputation.

For those younger than 55, you did not experience those unprecedented four days on TV. To get the effect, try sitting in front of your computer screen from this Friday afternoon until Monday night. That’s when CBS News will stream (in “real time” starting at 1:40 p.m. EST Friday) CBS’ 1963 on-air coverage. It will start with an audio-only news cut-in to a network soap opera. Stay glued until the lighting of the eternal flame Monday evening. Then, you may know what that weekend was like in America.

In fact, the early ‘60s was a defining time for TV news before the assassination. The first-ever televised national candidate debate swung attention towards telegenic, TV-savvy Kennedy in 1960. (Revealingly, radio listeners thought Nixon won it.) Then, the first televised presidential news conferences were a hit.

The impactful August 1963 March on Washington was televised live. And months before, TV news film of civil rights confrontations brought their brutal reality into living rooms nationwide. President Kennedy undertook an address to the nation to denounce it on those same airwaves.

200px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitIn September 1963, CBS pioneered the half-hour network evening news to carry all that the traditional 15 minutes couldn’t handle. Walter Cronkite launched it with an exclusive chat over Labor Day weekend done in two comfy chairs on the lawn at President Kennedy’s Cape Cod home. The President said it would be up to the South Vietnamese to determine their fate, even as a U.S.-backed coup would ultimately kill the country’s ruler on Nov. 1. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself would be dead and our world would wobble ahead through very changed times.

Becoming an aware young adult in these times, TV was my window on “the real world” and a primer on government, politics, war and peace. The power and influence of journalism, the news photo and the TV report would steer my path. And their power to affect aviation and its reputation would define my career.

Flying is an act of faith. Sure, the physics support flight but physics are an intangible thing to entrust with one’s life. Public belief in flying’s safety plays an oversize role.

And so, I believed a proactive approach to media coverage (and media error) was essential. I thought GA was shying away from TV news as more and more damage was being done. And for most aircraft manufacturers and at least one big (airline) trade association, crash response was always “no comment.”

The industry had reason to feel “stung.” Crash coverage, especially on local TV, was resplendent with technical error and mistaken assumption. This fed ill-informed “common knowledge” destructive to public trust. Pilots declared the news, especially TV news, our enemy for this incompetence and bias. You know the favorites: “You say the plane stalled? Why did the engine stall?” Or — sing along with me — “The pilot didn’t file a flight plan!” There was some educating to do.

Another theme emerged: Big plane versus small plane. “Small plane” had always implied more risk. But now, high-profile GA-airline collisions added “amateur pilot” to air travel risks. The theme was reinforced in Hollywood. To the everlasting dismay of Beech, AIRPORT ’77 featured a 747 taking a Baron through the windscreen. Beech management was still fuming in the late 1980s.

I felt I could move beyond conventional wisdom and take on the media — especially TV — with facts and perspective. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) had already done good promotional work on TV during its 1976-‘79 learn to fly campaign. I did the same for them in the early 1980s. For GAMA’s Ed Stimpson and me, the inspiration was FAA/DOT’s late ‘60’s national media tour to “sell” the U.S. supersonic transport project. (That effort inspired me to specialize in national media campaigns for a U.S. agency in the 1970s.)

Reaching the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in 1991, I finally had the resources to really work the problem. And after I left in 2001, strong journeyman hires at AOPA Communications continued the fight. But by then, declining GA activity meant rabid media attention had begun to move on (except for post-9/11 hysteria and the 2006 Cory Lidle New York City crash.)

I was blessed to be able to fulfill a life mission during my time on watch. Working WITH the media rather than AGAINST them was the answer. Insight into the news business — plus training and experience — was the enabler. For me, it all started about 1963.

As you view the avalanche of coverage about this tragic 50th anniversary, ponder also the modern age of TV news born of those years. Both changed the American psyche. And our industry had to change with it.

© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved


  1. Drew Steketee says

    To Readers:
    Let me be the first to add an addendum to my writing, that AOPA gave me both the resources AND THEIR CULTURAL TRADITION to confront the media. AOPA, long before I arrived, had a long tradition of confronting bad media coverage. I’ll write about the finer points of this some day (there are some differences), but for now — before anyone comments — I did not mean to imply that I launched AOPA’s defense of GA with the media. AOPA, sometimes alone, was at work on that long before I arrived. Thank you for allowing me, without prompting from anyone, to clarify on point. Drew

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