Newsman Christopher Glenn was a friend and colleague of mine, so it was with interest and sadness that I read his obituary provided by Associated Press in the Washington Post.
“Christopher Glenn, 68, a longtime CBS news correspondent who anchored coverage of the space shuttle Challenger explosion…[etc.]” was the lead, followed six paragraphs in with, “Mr. Glenn anchored the Jan. 28, 1986 launch of the doomed shuttle Challenger and delivered an anguished commentary as the space craft exploded shortly after liftoff.” The flight, AP went on to quote him as saying, “turning in the flash of an instant into a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Trouble is correspondent Glenn and CBS radio news were not on the air when Challenger exploded. In keeping with a network desire for brevity, he had broadcast ignition and liftoff and signed off!
How a national network could miss something that occurred some 71 seconds into the flight is explained by an executive penchant for brevity that had festered for years, culminating in one of broadcasting’s more shameful events. Glenn, it should be noted, was not to blame for any of this. Seeing what was happening up there, the producers hurriedly revived the network feed, got back on the air, and he proceeded to describe the “terrible, terrible tragedy” which CBS had missed.
Broadcasters, anchors, it must be stressed, do as they are told as far as broadcast time is concerned. “Wrap it up” is drilled into the gray matter of all who would be in the business.
As one who broadcast for CBS spaceshots from the Mercury days, through Gemini, Apollo. and the first series of Shuttle launches, I endured a growing executive desire for truncation. During a series of Agena-Gemini efforts, I was informed one morning that we wouldn’t bother with the launch of the unmanned Agena, which the manned Gemini would later launch and chase. “Unless,” I was told, “it blows up.” I explained that without the target there’d be no manned launch. “Well, if it blows up we’ll take air,” I was assured. “And how do I get on the air?” I asked. “Do I say something like, ‘gee America, you should’ve been here a minute ago’?” It got worse. One night we took an entire crew out to the broadcast site at the Cape only to be told we wouldn’t broadcast at all unless something went wrong. It didn’t and we didn’t.
During the course of a series of shorter and shorter airings, I tried to bargain. I tried MECO— Cape talk for Main Engine Cut Off. That was about 8 and a half minutes after liftoff. Whether you can see it or not, that thing is a ticking time-bomb, I ventured to the powers that be, and if we have taken the trouble to be here, and broadcast the launch, we owe it to them, and to us, to stay on through MECO. MECO, SCHMECO; it was futile.
It was part of a long piece, this march to brevity. It is industry-wide. Newscasts which had been fifteen minutes were pared to ten, then seven, and five, until today they are mere exclamation points. The same holds for television news. How often do you hear, “In the fifteen seconds we have left, Mr. Prime Minister…” and you realize this interview isn’t going to yield anything. Cable anchors spend half their time apologizing for not being given enough time. But in the commercial that follows, we are warned that an erection lasting more than four hours should elicit a call to a doctor.
Chris Glenn and I worked together at radio station WNEW in New York before going to CBS. I knew him, liked him, admired his sonorous voice and style. Also admired, the promo folks at CBS, who managed to con AP with a little sleight of pen.
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