Their ranks thinned by late-summer vacations, Boston stations called on all available resources to cover the landmark passing of Senator Edward Kennedy late in the night of August 25. The fact that the news stations had already deployed resources to Martha’s Vineyard, the island getaway where the Obama family is vacationing, further stretched personnel.
While President Obama did offer a brief statement from the Vineyard Wednesday morning, news reports related to the vacationing president were otherwise limited to the “Obama Grabs Fried Shrimp, Clams With Family” variety. So station managers spent little time deciding to pull reporters off Obama watch and send them toward the Kennedy enclave across Nantucket Sound on Cape Cod.
Hearst’s WCVB kept reporters on call late last night after reports from insiders about Kennedy’s failing health intensified throughout the day. The station broke in around 1 a.m. Wednesday, after two sources confirmed Kennedy’s death. The ABC affiliate will continue live through tonight, with breaks for Kennedy-oriented programming in the form of World News Tonight, a network special and Nightline.
“We’ll have done almost 24 hours of coverage,” says WCVB Executive Editor Neil Ungerleider.
All the local broadcast outlets were contacted for comment, but most were understandably unable to break away from the massive news-gathering going on.
Stations mostly went wall-to-wall on Kennedy coverage. A quick check of the Boston dial around 12:30 p.m. showed local reports on WCVB and CBS O&O WBZ (WBZ viewers could catch regular programming on sister independent WSBK), and a noon newscast featuring Kennedy coverage on Sunbeam’s NBC affiliate WHDH, while Fox O&O WFXT stuck to regularly scheduled programming in the form of Cristina’s Court. Two hours later showed the same—Kennedy coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC, and Divorce Court on Fox.
A Fox spokesperson said WFXT was live from 3:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., offered live cut-ins each hour until 5 p.m., then resumed live coverage for an extended 5 p.m. news.
Making the reporters’ task somewhat simpler was the fact that Kennedy, who was 77, had been suffering from advanced brain cancer for some time, which allowed stations to get their Kennedy content in order in advance of his passing. WCVB had about 40 such pieces ready for air, says Ungerleider.
Boston stations also made the most of their Web space to detail the life and times of the Democratic party icon. WHDH has live streaming Kennedy news and tidbits, including a tour of the Capitol Kennedy gave WHDH’s Andy Hiller that showed the senator’s personality and love of history.
WBZTV.com offers detailed medical information on Kennedy’s cancer, and an essay from political analyst Jon Keller illustrating Kennedy’s Massachusetts legacy. “We here in Massachusetts enjoy an extra benefit from having Ted Kennedy represent us,” Keller writes. “He is, by all accounts and by bi-partisan consensus, the most effective inside player on Capitol Hill in modern times.”
WCVB’s site has a trove of previously unseen photos of the Kennedy family from photographer Stan Forman, including shots from a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston in 1968. Forman provides his own captions for the snapshots. “That’s the kind of unique content we’re quite proud of,” says Ungerleider.
WFXT’s MyFoxBoston.com offers a wide variety of videos covering Kennedy’s life and public service career and a live stream of a press conference with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Topping a list of news stories on the home page Wednesday afternoon was a report on people continuing to focus on the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969, which saw a passenger in Kennedy’s car drown after he drove off a bridge.
The Website at Univision’s WUNI, meanwhile, led off with a special report about hurricanes mid-afternoon Wednesday, while New England cable channel NECN had information on the public viewing and funeral, and a story on the Kennedy clan’s decades-long connection to Cape Cod. (Somewhat surprisingly, NECN.com’s lead video was a confession from South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford).
WUNI General Manager Alex von Lichtenberg said the Univision station was limited in its coverage due to not having a live truck, but still cut in during the afternoon with testimony from local families about how Kennedy's work on immigration legislation affected them, and loaded up its 6 p.m. news with Kennedy-related coverage. "Ted Kennedy is iconic in Massachusetts, whether you're English or Spanish speaking," says von Lichtenberg. "He carries a lot of weight with our viewers."
Stations also called on viewers to add their own thoughts on Kennedy’s passing. “The people of Massachusetts, the people of the United States, and the people of the World lost an icon last night,” wrote one on MyFoxBoston.com. “A hero of the downtrodden, Senator Kennedy gave a voice to the voiceless.”
WCVB’s Ungerleider says the death of the last remaining Kennedy brother merits the full-scale news-gathering treatment. “The Kennedy family is such a part of Massachusetts history,” he says. “We knew his passing would be a major news story.”