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Tragedy puts media in spotlight

The Tucson massacre that killed six and wounded 14 was like any other catastrophic news story: An involuntary X-ray of the nation's media in action.

It would be monstrous to start out handing out "winner" and "loser" trophies when you're talking about unfolding trauma of that magnitude. What "contest" could possibly matter against the random murder of a 9-year-old girl, after all?

Still, there's no question that anyone looking at that X-ray of a terrible national news moment could see plain as day which media malfunctioned wretchedly and which acquitted themselves well under trying and dramatic circumstances.

What was true for the assassination of John F. Kennedy almost 50 years ago is still true: the news gathering process itself comes under universal scrutiny in times of trauma and, in its errors and blind alleys, it's never pretty to watch.

I happened to be online Saturday at midday when the story was breaking. The erroneous NPR report of six dead, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, stayed up after other media abruptly changed course and reported she'd in fact survived and was in surgery.

That, to understate, is not good for any news gathering agency. But then NPR has been conspicuously wounded ever since the ridiculous firing of commentator Juan Williams and equally ridiculous snotty comments defending it by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior VP for news, lost her job in the Williams firing aftermath and one can only wonder how that affected reportage of the awful Arizona shootings.

Even worse, by far, was the high and mighty New York Times. Its coverage of the unfolding events on its website Saturday was superb but, incredibly, the edition of the paper that was delivered to my house on Sunday morning had nothing about the massacre at all.

Such a huge Saturday news story should have been plastered all over the Times' front page and jumped throughout Section One. When I went to bed on Saturday night, I was hoping that Sunday's Times would use all of the paper's legendary resources to list the slain in full, not just, as everyone was quickly informed, a federal judge, a member of the congresswoman's staff and a 9-year old girl who'd just won a school election. I was hoping for a meaty report on the alleged assailant, too. And commentary on Giffords' own perspicaciousness about America's habituation to violent political rhetoric and imagery when she herself previously wondered aloud about the effect of Sarah Palin's putting her house seat in symbolic cross-hairs.

There were, to be sure, other things I wanted to know too along with the names of the three septuagenarians murdered along with the judge, 9-year old and congresswoman's staffer; for instance the names of those who prevented the accused from reloading and helping to subdue him at the scene (they are, respectively Patricia Maisch, Roger Salzgeber, Bill D. Badger and Joseph Zamudio, all strangely overlooked in the avalanche of initial coverage).

But no. Incredibly, there was nothing in our region's edition of Sunday's Times, even though the story began at 10 a.m. Mountain Time on Saturday, or noon EST. (The Times in other regions did have the story on Page 1.)

When I saw my Sunday Times I was flabbergasted. What kind of national newspaper has deadlines that omit entirely a huge story of national trauma that takes place 17 hours before that paper's scheduled delivery?

Obviously, newspapers like The News had up-to-date wire reports. We know how the Times Sunday edition works around the country -- with so much of it printed early. But shouldn't the printing and distribution procedures of any nationally delivered newspaper permit coverage of such extraordinary events?

That's what newspapers do, for pity's sake. When huge news breaks, they rip up front pages. I started working at this newspaper as a copy boy in 1964 -- the ancient hot-type era -- and I watched such things happen many times, and it was, indeed, a dramatic thing to see, as the best printers, copy editors, and swiftest and most accurate linotypists collaborated with extraordinary intensity on making sure that major news got on the front page.

Somehow, though, in the new technological configurations of the 21st century, it just didn't make the home edition on my doorstep when I woke up Sunday morning. To me, that is close to calamitous dereliction. Certainly it's grounds to review procedures.

On the other hand, I have to admit, as much as it galls me, that as I watched unfolding events on TV, Shepard Smith and Fox News were as good as initial TV coverage got. They had the name of the alleged assailant (Jared Loughner) long before CNN and even though they originally spelled it with an "a," not an "o," they corrected it immediately and were otherwise right on the money in the light of what's now known.

Even more impressive, in retrospect as I watched Saturday's events, was the memory of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's rally on the Washington Mall to restore sanity to public political discourse. It was a slightly self-conscious and even smug joke at the time but now in the cold light of day, Stewart and Colbert's satire seems as remarkably prescient as Giffords' own comments.

So too were the "New Media" triumphant. Long before anyone else, friends on Facebook were redirecting me to the accused assailant's videos on YouTube.

One brutal irony, though, that I saw no one comment on still haunts me.

Arizona, it was widely reported, is one of only three states that permit carrying concealed weapons. Giffords herself is a staunch proponent of Second Amendment rights.

All of that was widely reported.

What no one anywhere -- even on Fox News' surprisingly intensive coverage throughout Saturday afternoon -- mentioned even in passing was the eeriness of the call letters of the Tucson ABC affiliate whose on-site footage from the scene everyone was using.

The station was KGUN-TV.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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