News seen from a distance

FAA chopper restrictions limit plane-crash coverage
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New York City's local coverage of its second catastrophe in barely two months was hampered by restrictions on newsgathering that grew out of the first.

Post-Sept. 11 restrictions on the flights of TV news helicopters kept New York City's many local and network news choppers far away from the Nov. 12 American Airlines Airbus crash in Queens. Because of the restrictions—which ban the choppers from major metropolitan areas and airports—networks and stations were able at first to provide only distant views of billowing smoke along Queens' Rockaway Beach.

"Obviously, it was a big problem," noted Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran, who has been vigorously trying to get the government to lift the restrictions on news choppers and was in New York last Monday. "This was the kind of story that would have been told better if the helicopters were in the air. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said he'd been flown in by helicopter to the scene and described all the things he'd been able to see. It's a shame the public couldn't see what the mayor saw."

Reporters were also hampered in getting to the scene by the various tunnel and bridge closings ordered by city government following the crash. Despite the obstacles, though, local stations were soon providing dramatic footage from the crash site and surrounding neighborhood—images carried nationally and even internationally through various feeds to numerous network news services.

Networks and local stations—all six English-language and both Spanish-language stations—pre-empted regular programming to cover the crash, with cable news nets predictably providing wall-to-wall coverage.

ABC took some heat from affiliates for going off its coverage of the story to return, for about half an hour, to its morning talk show, The View
, while other networks stayed with the story. The network, which acknowledged affiliates' complaints, said it was a control-room decision based on the lack of news coming from the story, which was about an hour and a half old when ABC left it.

ABC noted that it soon returned with live coverage.

Some frustrated news directors lamented that ABC's early coverage had attracted a large audience, which had dropped considerably by the time the news with Peter Jennings returned. The View
had begun with live shots and acknowledgement of the disaster but later "was doing a segment on how to change your hair color," a news director noted.

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