A day’s worth of viewing local Pittsburgh TV stations’ coverage of the synagogue shooting reinforces the importance and value of diligent, thorough coverage to the community of both viewers and those directly affected, something you don’t find anywhere else.
I hadn’t planned to spend this past Saturday watching TV, other than to perhaps catch the fourth quarter of the Pitt-Duke game.
But my daughter dropped in just before 11 a.m. to pick up some keys and told me that there had been a shooting at a synagogue in the nearby Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
I started flipping channels — CBS’s KDKA, Hearst’s WTAE and Cox’s WPXI. All were on the scene reporting live. I quickly learned that the synagogue was the Tree of Life, just a mile from my home at an intersection I pass nearly every day.
I watched mostly KDKA. On-the-scene reporter Andy Sheehan seemed to be ahead of the competition. Shortly after 11, he was reporting that at least eight congregants had been killed. I also liked that Sheehan lived in the neighborhood.
This is no slight to the others. I just wanted to get a good idea how one local station would handle a big breaking story.
When I first tuned in, KDKA coverage was anchored by Heather Abraham and Brenda Waters. In the afternoon, Ken Rice stepped in for Waters and Susan Koeppen for Abraham and still later, Stacy Smith for Rice. It was a long day.
The KDKA anchors were impressive, avoiding speculation, slowly building the story with each retelling as the facts were painstakingly established and orchestrating reports from the field.
They followed the story as it spread to other parts of the city — to one of the hospitals where the wounded were taken (John Shumway), to the home of alleged shooter (Ralph Iannotti) and finally to a street corner in Squirrel Hill where high school students had organized an evening vigil (Pam Surano).
And, of course, they cut to the press conference with local officials when that finally organized itself shortly after 4.
The coverage mostly steered clear of the political issues that surround these too-frequent mass shootings, although Rep. Mike Doyle, when asked by Surano at the vigil, expressed frustration with the House leadership’s refusal to bring any common-sense gun regulation to the floor.
To its credit, the station didn’t drag any experts into the studio to speculate about the motive, to psychoanalyze the shooter or propound on causes or larger meanings. They simply stuck to the story.
Throughout the day, it was left to Sheehan at a street corner to pull in Jewish leaders familiar with Tree of Life to talk about the congregation and larger Squirrel Hill community and to express the shock and sorrow that all were feeling.
For the most part, it was a story without pictures. There wasn’t much to see from behind the police lines. The station didn’t try to compensate by spiking the coverage with screaming graphics a la cable news.
I have been critical of local TV news for being too stodgy, for being too fixated on doing things by the book. But on this day, that quality came across as cool professionalism.
I wasn’t the only one to appreciate the coverage. During the evening vigil, Surano interviewed a mother, father and son. After the interview, the mother started to walk away, but turned back to Surano. She had something else to say: “We have been listening to television all day. Thank you for giving us the play by play. We just had no information.”
At this point, it might be bad form for a broadcaster to make hay out the fine work the Pittsburgh stations did this weekend. Well, I’m not a broadcaster. I’m just a reporter who has followed more carefully than most what they do and how they do it.
The federal government — Congress, the FCC, the Justice Department — makes policy that affects broadcasting and its competitors. Those policies will determine whether broadcasting can sustain the news operations they have today or whether they will slowly diminish as newspapers have.
The current FCC, I think, gets it, but I’m not so sure about the Justice Department. Makan Delrahim, the head of Justice’s antitrust division, has announced that he will soon hold a “workshop” to reconsider its policy toward broadcasting.
In particular, he said, he wants to look at the advertising model that supports local TV news and “how the advent of advertising online … through Google, through Facebook, through Amazon has changed that marketplace.”
Based on my Saturday TV viewing, I have two thoughts on that:
- KDKA went all-in with 10 hours of nonstop coverage on a big local story of national importance without commercial interruption.
- I do not believe Facebook or Google or Amazon had a single reporter on the scene.
On a personal note, I spent much of my youth and college years in the East End Pittsburgh neighborhoods and towns of Oakland, East Liberty, Highland Park, Shadyside, Swissvale, Edgewood, Wilkinsburg and Squirrel Hill.
I moved back here in June to be near family and because I love this place. When I walk down Forbes Avenue between Shady and Murray, I not only think about what it is, but also about what is was in 1963 when my uncle and I went shopping there or what it was in 1974 when my girlfriend (now wife) and I nearly froze waiting for the 61A to take us back to Duquesne. I intend to spend the rest of my life here.
I am too newly returned to say I am fully part of this community yet. But I will tell you I felt this attack in the gut, the pain a mix of outrage and profound sadness for the victims and their families. It was the same awful feeling I had when I was living in Chatham, N.J., and the 9/11 attacks killed 11 Chatham residents.
It’s like the exhausted Sheehan said as he wrapped up his 10 hours of marathon coverage Saturday, “When it happens in your backyard, it’s different.”
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here.