Posted: April 18, 2000
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The local media feel the heat

Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1979, pp. 56–57
(Sidebar article to “At Three Mile Island“)

When the national media descend on a Middle American city for a big story, you expect the city slickers to outshine the locals. Not this time. Almost unanimously, out-of-town reporters praised the performance of the Harrisburg Patriot and Evening News. The praise for local TV and radio was less fulsome (few reporters had time to watch or listen), but even here the assessment was complimentary. Local coverage of T.M.I. was flaccid before the crisis, but under the gun the locals did a creditable job.

The Patriot-News is a typical Newhouse small-city profit center. Editor Saul Kohler covered the White House for the chain for ten years before taking over the Evening News in 1978; he became executive editor of both papers the morning of the T.M.I. accident.

For the next two weeks, Kohler says, the papers “had no budget.” Extra pages were added, two dozen reporters were told not to worry about overtime, and press deadlines were ignored. The Evening News abandoned its two editions and went through as many as five replates daily. “The VDTs saved our ass,” says Kohler (though Patriot reporter Ron Jury half-jokingly complained that his dosimeter registered eight millirems after twenty-five minutes at the keyboard). The papers capped their coverage with an adless sixteen-page supplement on April 16.

Local broadcasters also gave the story everything they had — which amounted to half a dozen reporters each. The dominant radio station in the market is WHP, a CBS affiliate; by Friday the station had modified its format and was giving T.M.I. extensive coverage. WHP-TV ran three half-hour news specials during the crisis. WGAL, an NBC affiliate in nearby Lancaster, is the top-rated TV station (and the only VHF station) in the market; it stayed on the air all night Friday to handle the crisis. WTPA, Harrisburg‘s Newhouse-owned ABC affiliate, kept its TV station on the air all night Friday and Saturday and switched its nighttime radio from automated music to live news for five days.

Overall, local coverage was professional, thorough, and very cautious. In the two weeks following the accident, not once did local reporters garble anything significant. Nor did they once score a beat on anything significant. Every local reporter and editor we talked to said the same thing: this is our community, these are our neighbors, we don‘t want to start a panic with an inaccurate story. Or even, perhaps, with an accurate one.

The Patriot-News, for example, spiked a reporter‘s account of what would happen to bank records in the event of a disaster because it didn‘t want to provoke a run on the banks. It used, but downplayed, an A.P. “what-if” piece on the likely effects of a meltdown (I‘m not going to tell people their hair will turn green,” says Kohler). It rejected thousands of dollars in ads for evacuation sales and radiation detectors (the Inquirer reported the only one that got through). And it checked every word of wire copy locally before printing it. The cross-checking protected the papers from A.P. errors. It also protected them from the more pessimistic assessments that the A.P. was moving out of Washington.

“Our whole effort was directed at not overly alarming people,” says Paul Heil, WGAL news director. “Some of the smaller radio stations went with rumors, adding a weasel like ’we‘re trying to confirm that now.‘ We didn‘t report anything until after we had confirmed it.” None of the three local TV stations used the A.P.‘s Saturday evening report that the bubble might become explosive.

The networks, of course, were less preoccupied with panic than their affiliates. CBS and NBC devoted their 9 p.m. news updates to the A.P. bulletin, starting an avalanche of phone calls to the local stations. WGAL (NBC) and WTPA (ABC) reached Denton at the site and interrupted programming with his assurances that the danger wasn‘t imminent. WHP (CBS) waited for Denton‘s capitol briefing, then used the story on its 11:00 news.

After CBS broadcast what WHP news director Herb Thurman calls “the ultimate meltdown story” on Sunday (it described what would happen should one occur), general manager Joseph Higgins called Bill Leonard at CBS News to complain. “The network‘s main concern was to make the story as dramatic as possible,” Thurman says, “much to the detriment of the local viewing public.”

Although some local news organizations were critical of national coverage, all were eminently hospitable to the national press corps. WHP helped out not only the CBS team, but also crews from network-owned WCBS (New York), WCAU (Philadelphia), and KNXT (Los Angeles). Any station was welcome to use its news-conference feeds, and many did. WGAL was twenty-three miles away in Lancaster, so the NBC people wound up at WTPA along with ABC and the out-of-town affiliates of both networks. The Patriot-News was similarly overburdened by teams from Newhouse, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and dozens of smaller publications.

In contrast to the visitors, who were tense and tired, but also excited, the locals were grim, more openly frightened. Most Patriot-News staff members took time off to get their families out of town, then almost lived in the newsroom, doggedly trying to find out what was happening for the neighbors who were left.

A touch of civic boosterism notwithstanding, the local media did a good job with the T.M.I. crisis. The real test comes now, after national attention has moved on. The pressure to close ranks and to protect the area from economic damage will be intense. An early sign appeared April 10, less than two weeks after the accident, when sixty civic leaders convened a blue-ribbon committee to “take a lemon and change it into lemonade,” with a PR stress on bolstering the area‘s threatened agriculture, dairy, and tourism industries. Patriot-News publisher John H. Baum has become an active member of that committee.

Copyright © 1979 by Columbia Journalism Review

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