Memo from the M.E. (News Coverage from United Press International: Jan. 25-31, 1986)
To: All Staff From: Ron Cohen, Managing Editor
Huge stories have always brought out the best in Unipressers.
This week was no exception.
When space shuttle Challenger blew up 72 seconds after launch from Cape Canaveral before noon Tuesday, Unipressers everywhere leaped with traditional alacrity -- pouring on details, helping with roundup reactions, suggesting story ideas.
We were handicapped at the start by the fact that spaceflight veteran Al Rossiter, Jr. was in Pasadena, Calif., winding up coverage of Voyager's Uranus fly-by -- thus breaking his record of never having missed being involved in coverage of a U.S. manned space mission -- an incredible 49 in all.
Al, frustrated at being a continent away from the worst disaster in 25 years of spaceflight, nevertheless was invaluably helpful -- watching television and staying on an open phone line to Lou Carr on the National Desk with background and editing suggestions from his intimate knowledge of the space program..
Meanwhile, back at the Cape, we hit them with the three Bills -- Harwood, Lohmann and Wood, and former space writer Ed DeLong, pressed into service in Rossiter's absence and himself an expert on matters spactial.
Our bulletin that the ship had exploded and there were fears the seven crewmembers could not have survived cleared two minutes ahead of AP's flash.
We did not flash the story because there was so much uncertainty -- the rationale being that you cannot call back a flash if the information changes. One subscriber complained we should have had a flash to alert him that this was different from our routine bulletin space launches, but, even in retrospect, the decision would be the same. Always better safe than sorry in the wire service biz.
Harwood dictated smooth pm adds to the bulletin to Bill Trott in Washington, and National Editor Jack Warner in Atlanta, a veteran of handling space copy, launched into writethru pm and am leads, working with Carr who was on the open line to Rossiter to make sure we had no scientific missteps.
Lori (WA) Santos, meanwhile, grabbed perspots of the astronauts from the hold files, edited them down to 250-word thumbnails, and pumped them quickly out. Then she ran full-length perspots on each, and sent out a vital bureau page message urging contributions from every locale where the astronauts had any ties.
With the reaction pouring in, Linda (WA) Werfelman took over the formidable task of sorting it all out -- we did separate reaction from official Washington, from families, from neighbors and friends, from around the world. Supreme Court staffers Henry Reske and Andrea Neal headed downtown to turn out fast, well-written reaction separates. Wendy Benjamin, fresh onto national from Metro Desk, handled a state reaction rup. Dan Silva of the Foreign Desk did world reaction. Financial writer Bob Webster in HC wrapped up reaction to the disaster from the shuttle program contractors.
Feature writers Tom (WA) Ferraro and Ken (BH) Frankling headed immediately to Concord, N.H., teacher Christa McAuliffe's hometown, to help State Editor Steve Szkotak and staffers Richard March and Deirdre Wilson.
Deirdre was at Concord High School watching the blastoff with Christa's students, and her writethru moved 30 minutes after the bulletin on the explosion. Lohmann's story on Christa's horrified parents moved 20 minutes after the bulletin.
Houston bureau manager Mary Schlengenstein rushed to the Johnson Space Center, supplemented later in the afternoon by Feature Writer Bill Inman from Dallas, who chipped in with a story on astronaut insurance.
At the White House, Ira Allen and Norm Sandler reported on the shock of the First Family and the postponement of Reagan's State of the Union message, and later the president's televised remarks to the nation -- and Sean McCormally's fast and expert desking won us the play.
On Capitol Hill, with Steve Gerstel and Bob Shepard directing, Mary Beth Franklin and Rob Doherty covered lawmakers-turned-astronauts Jake Garn and Bill Nelson, and Chuck Abbott was with astronaut-turned-lawmaker John Glenn.
Two Daves, Rosso in Washington and Dugas in New York, handled the space history context pieces out of reference books and NDH. Bill (HX) Ries chipped in with a roundup of reaction from the other finalists in the teacher-in-space sweepstakes. TV writer Mark Schwed in New York wrote about television coverage of the tragedy. Gayle (NX) Young, following through on an idea from Political Writer Clay Richards, interviewed psychologists who said there well could be long-term trauma for children who watched the explosion on TV.
John Iams in Moscow weighed in with a Soviet sidebar. Al Webb in London and former staffer Darrell Mack in Dallas wrote first-person reminiscences of their coverage of countless manned space shots. Jan Zeigler and Dave Anderson in Washington turned up Christa McAuliffe's application for the space program and did a story and the text. Craig Walker in Columbia, S.C., handled a separate on what the tragedy might mean to the journalist-in-space program. Pat (NX) McCormack chipped in with a roundup of schoolchildren reactioni, and Kate Callen of WA Features interviewed tourists at the Air and Space Museum.
Deskers in Washington kept the mountains of breaking copy flowing quickly and smoothly -- and most importantly, accurately. We were virtually flawless despite tens of thousands of words written and transmitted under the most excruciating deadline pressures, as numerous paper rushed out extras.
Handling the desking chores were Carr, Trott, Pat Killen, Dan Chiszar, Jeff Wood, Andy Tully, Jon Fransden, Tamara Henry, Dana Walker, Lori Santos, Sean McCormally, Dave Rosso, and two Wendys, Benjamin and Zentz.
Judy Dugan doffed her features cap to edit spot copy, and took quotes off the tube for the bulletin from the NASA news conference conceding the crew had been given up for dead.
Michelle Mundth came in early to start the prodigious project of setting up the overnight. She and troops Gary Silverman, Donna Hendricks, Janice Fuhrman and Pam Murphy turned out a beautiful report, with super-help from WA-siders Kathy Silvassy, Steve Gorman and Tony Miller.
Jack Warner's timely return may never be more welcome than in this 3rd night lead under DeLong's byline:
CAPE CANAVERAL (UPI) -- The shuttle Challenger exploded in a boiling ball of flame 72 seconds after blastoff today, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates in the worst space tragedy since man began reaching for the stars 25 years ago.
This turned out to be the unanimous choice for Lead of the Week.
In Boston, Dave Haskell and Phil Reed aided Szkotak in desking chores, while Steve Bredice and Elizabeth Ricci did a bang-up job in getting reaction from throughout New England, and particularly from Massachusetts -- McAuliffe was born in Boston and raised in Framingham, Mass., where a memorial service was held. Bredice "penned" this lovely lead:
FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (UPI) -- Students at Christa McAuliffe's alma mater released sevenblack balloons into a chilly blue sky Thursday and asked God to hold the pioneering teacher "forever, tenderly, in the palm of Your hand."
Meanwhile, despite being overwhelmed by the spot crush, UPI's tireless crew turned out a superb weekend package that included an overview and history of the shuttle program by Rossiter; Harwood speculating on what conceivably could have caused the tragedy; Eliot Brenner on the congressional committees looking over NASA's shoulder; Richard Gross on military fallout; Ferraro on McAuliffe's "right stuff" rubbing off on the kids of Concord; Delthia (HC) Ricks's interview with the head of a project to launch a satellite around Jupiter; Warner's fine reader on the dangers of being a pioneer (Dugan called it a "writing lesson"); and DeLong's exclusive analysis of specially processed high-resolution videotapes of the last seconds of Challenger. All illustrated with photos and graphics.
Our efforts did not go unrewarded.
Former Central Division News Editor Linda Caleca called Wednesday to say UPI was splashed all over the IA Star. Tom (X) Uhlenbrock said the Post-Dispatch, which favors AP because the competing Globe-Democrat is UPI-only, said Wednesday morning's P-D had two UPI front-page signers and mucho UPI inside -- and AP drew a blank. Of seven astronaut perspots in the NX Times, four were produced by the Times, three were ours.
Tom (CZ) Burnett messaged that "appreciative pm editor at the Wooster (Ohio) Daily Record offers thanks for the speed with which UPI reported the shuttle disaster -- the bulletin in her computer within two minutes of the explosion."
Steve (KT) Geimann said, "Client with two services says we broke two minutes ahead of Grandma on the initial explosion. Also praised Bill Lohmann's well-written piece on reaction from BW."
Gina (IA) Hills: "Unsolicited kudos from two highspeed PM Indiana clis. Columbus Republic Editor Stu Hoffman was delighted with UPI's coverage and pix. He said he was glad he was on our wire. Franklin Daily Journal editor Bud Herron said the lead was fantastic."
Logs proved the praise justified. We scored about even on the breaking cycle, and cleaned their clocks for Wednesday ayems -- a main lead win (mostly combos) and overall 54-34-36. Sidebar play was especially gratifying -- the numerical superiority of the black hats generally shows most in sidebars, but they couldn't match our speed and variety.
Follow-up play was equally satisfactory, and if I could find takers I'd lay big odds on our weekend package.
Our pictures were excellent, but we were badly hurt by line problems that broke transmissions, forcing us to repeat and resulting in huge backlog. This doubtlessly played a large part in holding down UPI picture credits.
Walt (HSP) Frerck: "As with every shuttle flight, I was in front of a TV monitor photographing the launch from NASA TV. When the explosion came, it took me a second to realize it was too early for the boosters to separate, and I had an 'Oh, my God' gut feeling. I shot the rest of the roll of the explosion, smoke and debris and called WA.
"I started processing the film and called in Bruno Torres, then transmitted the explosion. The Cape came on with spot photos and Bruno and I made up a four-way combo from TV. We made filers of the crew during simulation, and looked for mood photos at the Johnson Space Center. Next morning we had astronauts visiting family homes and flowers arriving. Bruon and Reuters stringer Anthony Hayward made the memorial services and came up with some emotional photos. Gary (DAP) Edwards and HS stringer Jo Keener helped on Friday's memorial service."
In Washington, the picture crew shot the explosion off television and moved a very good quality fireball in color with the booster rocket breaking away.
From Joe Scopin's Graphics Department, staffers Ross Toro, Megan Jagerman and John Martinez produced a number of high-powered illustrations to complement the picture report.
At the Cape, BWP started coverage Tuesday with the crew walkout at 7:50 a.m. Pete (TPP) Cosgrove and Bob (MHP) East shot color and stringers Bill Mitchell and Jim Sherry black and white as the crew left their quarters for Pad 39B. East made nice color of Christa McAuliffe, and Sherry had a really nice picture of Christa grinning as she approached the crew van -- the last picture show.
East shot the liftoff with the new VIP grandstand in the foreground. Cosgrove shot from the press site, trying to frame the shuttle with palm trees. Both followed the rising ship with long lenses, then switched to wide-angles. Suddenly it disappeared in a huge cloud of smoke. Quickly make a few frames, East and Cosgrove raced to the trailer. East souped the film as Cosgrove slapped a NASA handout crew picture on the transmitter, getting a print on the net less than 3 minutes after the explosion. We followed with photos of the fireball. Sherry came in with dramatic shots of some of the runner-up "Teacher in Space" candidates watching in shock. We picked up a nice shot of Christa McAuliffe's parents from the BH Herald and a widely used picture of the smoke trail with the explosion.
Bill (AJP) Cranford arrived a 6 p.m. to coordinate and Sam (NVP) Parrish and John (AJP) Dickerson shortly after to assist in lab work and keep atop NASA, which was refusing to release any photos. BWP also handled special requests for the Manchester Union-Leader, BH Herald, LA Times, TA Tribune, HS Post, Newsday, Life, Picture Week, USA Today, NX Daily News, and the BH Globe -- many of whom had been refused assitance by Rox, who advised members they would not handle film or transmissions. We welcomed them and picked up several good pictures -- as well as good will.
NASA refused to release photos of the launch or any search operation. After two days they allowed us to retrieve our remote cameras but kept the film, promising to process it and give us back dupes. As of this writing, we have received nothing.
From Don (BHP) Robinson:
"With Gene (HMP) Willman still recovering from a heart attack, I sent BH staffer Mark Cardwell to Concord Monday evening, helped by regular HM stringers Peter Blakely, Bob LaCourse and Mandy Marsh. After the explosion, I sent stringer Sy Cherensen to handle the inside work and staffer George Riley and regular BH stringer Cindy Loo called in from New Hampshire and were dispatched to Concord. So our manpower consisted of two BH staffers and five stringers, and we moved pictures all day and night Tuesday.
"Out of BH we handled memorial services in Framingham, parents coming back home, and chasing reports McAuliffe's husband and kids were coming back."
During all this, BH pix, newsside and sports had to handle the running story of how the New England Patriots were Super Bowl losers but "Drug Bowl" winners. Says Sports Editor David Tucker:
"The copy by Division Editor Charles Goldsmith and Fred Waterman on the Patriots drug problem was superb. In the midst of the space shuttle tragedy, I don't know how they made time."
UPI Radio received congratulatory calls in the same half hour from New York stations WINS, WNEW, and WOR -- all of which had carried Rob Navias's live coverage.
Some other kudos:
Don Wick, KBRC, Mt. Vernon, Wash.: "Rob Navias did a better job than the TV nets, his ad-libbing throughout was superb. Really fine stuff. The man's obviously knowledgeable."
From KTAN, Sierra Vista, Ariz., News Director Colonel Swan, Jr.: "We were very impressed iwth Navias and (Bill) Small, singling out Rob for "very smooth" delivery under trying circumstances.
Editor-in-chief Max McCrohon: "The UPI Network staff did a superb job on the Challenger tragedy. Sensitive, accurate, detailed reporting throughout. The technical handling was excellent."
Reports Lou Giserman: "Navias was on live as the explosion occurred. He stayed on the network for 20 minutes and provided superb description. His knowledge is unbelievable. He noted, for example, that it was 9 years ago plus one day that three U.S. astronauts died in a launch pad fire. He knew what was going on before the NASA commentator announced it.
"Navias went live every 15 minutes for three hours.
"As soon as we learned about the tragedy, Bill Small was dispatched to the White House, and joined Navias in live broadcasting. Bill anchored coverage of Larry Speakes's briefing and of Reagan. House correspondent Bonnie Erbe joined Pye Chamberlayne to get Hill reaction that was used live.
"We dispatched UPI radio anchor Ron Amadon, former HM bureau chief, back to Concord where he provided excellent, moving reports. Ed Kering swept New York for man-on-the-street reaction.
"I counted 30 live programs, then stopped counting. We covered NASA news conferences, Reagan, and on Friday tied up the package with Small live from the memorial services in Houston.
"I just can't say enough about the excellent job Navias is doing at the Cape. AP Radiio has three stafferes there to our one. Even so, Ed Bell of WHDH radio in Boston, a member of the AP Affiliates, chose our live coverage. Enough said."
Amidst the shuttle stuff, the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti was unraveling. Editors were slow to pick up the significance of the impending major political changes in the Caribbean, but early logs were ours, with Sondra Beaulieu in Port-au-Prince and Julie Brossy in San Juan moving loads of copy from a police state island difficult to cover.
Since oil prices broke two weeks ago, NXF's Roz Liston, UPI energy writer and sole survivor of our worldwide six-person energy team, has put in a non-stop effort reporting the collapse she predicted in December. Writing daily oil prices rups, pulling together developments around the world with analysts' commentary, she made time for a well-played consumer impact story two days after prices began plummeting. It made us among the first news organizations -- if not the first -- to point out U.S. motorists and homeowners were unlikely to see the full benefit of lower crude prices in their fuel bills. On a more-than-full Tuesday, she wrote a 1,.000-word Q & A on what falling prices mean for the economy, consumers, oil exporters, consuming nations and various industries, and composed questions for a worldwide package on the oil situation -- this between filing skedded stories on oil prices, oil earnings and oil stocks.
The Bill Inman series on the mob activities in the Sunbelt was so impressive the San Antonio Light made it into a special Sunday section.
On Jan. 30, 1956, Patrick J. Killen, a mere tad of a lad, joined UPI in San Francisco. His travels in service to this company have taken him to Honolulu, Karachi, New Delhi, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, Manila, Chicago and back to Washington, where he has presided for several years as WA Day Editor.
The estimable Mr. Killen was feted by Mssrs. Hughes, Wiessler and Cohen over meaty spareribs at lunch Thursday on the auspiciouis occasion of 30 years of dedicated and talented service.
A tip of the M.E.'s baseball cap to a most valuable Unipresser, indeed.