Covering a Crisis: Death of JFK Jr.

9:06 pm Feature Stories

ABC Ink
Covering a Crisis
By Dawn Shurmaitis

When the news hit and the beepers buzzed, dozens of ABC News employees cut short vacations and weekends at the beach to rush to Massachusetts. The search for JKF Jr.’s missing plane was on, and so was the pursuit of information, any information, about the plane’s famous occupants: the dashing Kennedy, his elegant wife and her accomplished sister.

Aviation Correspondent Lisa Stark, the mother of two young kids, was still in pajamas at her Maryland home when the Washington bureau called early Saturday morning, July 17, with the most urgent message possible: a breaking news story that needed her instant attention. Immediately, Stark called her long-time producer, Tina Babarovic. Within minutes, both hit the phones, calling sources to confirm those first few sketchy reports.

Key to Senior Washington Editor Kerry Smith Marash was getting Stark on the story, and then on to Massachusetts. Marash coordinated all coverage out of Cape Cod. “Stark is the expert, the central lynch pin of crash coverage,” says Marash of Stark, who joined ABC News in 1994, specializing in Federal agencies, with a focus on transportation. She and Babarovic have worked together so long and on so many disasters (including the bombing in Oklahoma City and the investigation into the crash of TWA Flight 800) they’ve earned the nickname “the crash queens” around the Washington bureau.

Their expertise and contacts were essential Saturday, when Stark broke the news that the plane had gone into a steep dive of 4,700 feet per minute just before it left radar, the first solid indication of serious trouble.

“We kept having football huddles, asking ‘Should we go with this? Do we have a second source? A triple source?’ ” says Babarovic. “Our motto was ‘We’d rather be late than wrong.’ ” Says Stark: “We worked our sources. We got it. We went on the air with it. We were very careful.”

ABC went on the air with its first report a few minutes after 8 a.m. Saturday. Over the next seven days, ABC aired 47 stories on the disappearance and subsequent death of John Kennedy Jr., accounting that week for approximately 63 percent of “World News Tonight,” according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Coverage included commercial-free non-stop reports through 6 p.m. the first day, a prime-time special Saturday night and reports on “Good Morning America,” “20/20”, “Nightline” and even “The View.”

Network President Pat Fili-Krushel made the costly decision early Saturday to break away from the British Open golf tournament. Thanks to ABC’s cable partners, ESPN and ESPN2, the tournament and subsequent soccer game got on the air.

Throughout, the ABCNEWS.com web site relayed live audio and video coverage of breaking developments, while allowing viewers – in a way wholly unique to this new technological era – to mourn. ABC also dug deep into the archives, airing footage that included the 1960 newsreel of a 13-day-old Kennedy leaving the hospital.

The huge task of assembling an army of ABC news personnel – and moving them by car, air and boat to Cape Cod – fell to Mimi Gurbst, VP of news coverage. The first weekend, ABC’s cornerstone anchors Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters reported from New York, while Charlie Gibson went live from Hyannis Port near the Kennedy Compound. All told, nearly 100 reporters, producers, editors and crew jockeyed for positions on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod.

Help came from all corners: Correspondent Morton Dean has a house on the Cape and was easily drafted into action. Correspondent John Miller offered his boat, one of many ABC borrowed or chartered to ferry reporters during the search.

Marash, who stayed in constant contact with ABC News headquarters in New York, was based over the weekend in a satellite truck parked in Hyannis Port and later at a hastily-assembled work space in a local hotel room. From there, she coordinated crews posted at Otis Air Force Base in Cape Cod, where Stark and Babarovic issued their reports; Hyannis Port; and Wood’s Hole, a staging area for the Coast Guard. Crews also covered Bridgehampton, Long Island – where Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg lives – and Greenwich, Conn., where the Bessette family resides.

The intense public interest in the story required herculean efforts on the part of news personnel who were constantly jockeying for information in a fiercely competitive environment. Rumors and misinformation ran rampant. What washed up? When were the wreckage discovered? What were the families going to do? The plane’s occupants were so high-profile even the president was constantly informed, adding another unusual twist to an already extraordinary story.

“This was not a typical plane crash by any stretch of the imagination,” says Stark. “I’m the face on camera, but there are a zillion people behind me. Everyone works together on a story like this.”

Throughout, management urged Stark and the rest of the ABC News team to avoid sensationalism and pack journalism. As soon as the families announced the burial at sea, ABC News President David Westin ordered all ABC-manned boats and helicopters to respect the families’ privacy by keeping their distance from the ship carrying the ashes. As it turned out, the air space and the area around the ship were off limits to all reporters.

Coverage continued through Friday, July 23, during the private memorial service in New York, which ABC covered live. Stark and Babarovic, however, will pursue new leads for months to come.

“We’ll continue to keep checking with our sources, to find out what the recovered wreckage tells us,” says Stark. “The story has not ended.”

 

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