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Live TV has provided indelible memories


Television is unquestionably the dominant entertainment medium of our generation.

As much as the radio, magazine, newspaper and nowadays even the Internet media would argue to the contrary, nobody who is looking at the way we Americans live our lives can honestly say that most entertainment is not provided by television.

Now, in terms of pure news and information, all newspaper readers know that television news cannot hold a candle to the depth and breadth of information that one can find in newspapers.

The one advantage television will always have over the other media as an information and news source, however, is its ability to “go live” -- to show anticipated and unanticipated events as they unfold.

TV Guide magazine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering its opinions on the top 50 shows of all time. What they forgot were those live television moments that helped change our lives. Unless fate put you at the scene of a historic event, your frame of reference of some of the defining moments of the past half-century probably came through television.

We offer the following list of moments that we remember as defining moments because of television’s ability to bring it to us live (in inverse order, much as David Letterman might do):

5. O.J. Simpson -- guilty or not guilty? What television in the United States was not tuned in to the live coverage of the culmination of the 16-month national soap opera?

It all started June 14, 1994, with the famous “slow-speed chase” on various Los Angeles-area freeways. Coverage of police chases is routine daily business in the LA broadcast media, but when it was learned that football star and actor Simpson was in a white Bronco being chased by Los Angeles Police, the coverage went live on most of the national TV networks.

After a year in which daily live murder trial coverage created a new set of national media celebrities, Simpson stood with his defense team in early October, 1995 to hear whether a LA jury thought there was enough evidence to convict O.J. of charges of murdering his ex-wife and Ron Goldman. The eyes of the nation focused on the eyes of Simpson, waiting to see his reaction and to learn his fate. Nearly everyone reading this will remember that single-file line surrounding Simpson, and his relieved sigh when he learned he wouldn’t be going to prison. Of course, he was later found liable for the death of Goldman and the battery of his ex-wife by a civil court and ordered to pay more than $8 million in damages.

4. It was midday on March 30, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was ambushed and shot by John Hinckley in Washington, D.C. We didn’t see that live, but what we did see unfold in front of our eyes was a possible Constitutional crisis, a coup, or perhaps both.

As Reagan lay on an operating table and with Vice President George Bush in the air on a flight from Texas to Washington, Secretary of State Alexander Haig addressed a press gathering and announced that “I am in charge here at the White House.”

Whoa, there, Al! After the vice president, it’s the speaker of the House -- not the Secretary of State -- who is next in succession. Haig had the reputation of an itchy trigger finger, and the thought of him with control over the nuclear launch codes was a bit scary. In fact, transcripts of behind-the-scenes discussions show that Haig did try to issue orders to have the “football” (suitcase with nuclear codes) brought to him.

Order of succession was restored without incident, but for a split second we thought maybe the military was seizing power.

3. We were there for the start of the Gulf War on January 17, 1991. The buildup in the Gulf region had been going on for weeks, so it was a foregone conclusion that the U.S.-forged alliance would be attacking Iraq in an attempt to liberate Kuwait.

In the moment which helped establish CNN as one of the leading, if not the leading, international broadcast news organizations, reporters John Holliman and Bernard Shaw, along with their technicians, broadcast live from a high-rise building in downtown Baghdad as the now-famous glow of anti-aircraft fire lit the nighttime sky. We sat transfixed because this was truly uncharted territory for the media -- broadcasting live as a war erupted. Would the building from which the CNN correspondents were broadcasting be hit? Would Iraqi soldiers attack the reporters? At wartime, all rules and arrangements are off.

Remember when someone knocked on their door? Holliman and Shaw had taken cover under a table, and who can forget the exchange when Shaw, the senior correspondent, sent Holliman to answer the door? Who knew what awaited on the other side? It turned out it was a non-violent exchange, but it gave us civilians a hint of the tension and adrenaline rush that occurs as violent events unfold quickly.

2. “That’s one small step for a man … One giant leap for mankind.”

On July 20, 1969, the nation huddled around its television sets to watch a man from a small town in Ohio prepare to take the first Earthly steps on another world. It was late in the evening in the East. A then-young man remembers being allowed to stay up way past his bedtime for this defining moment.

As amazing as Neil Armstrong’s history-making walk was the fact that our technological capabilities had advanced to the point that we could see live images from outside our world. The images were fuzzy and the sound quality was muffled by today’s standards. And people wondered, would he be all right? Would man be able to survive on the moon? Like any uncharted environment, possible dangers lurked. It wasn’t a slam dunk, to use a new millennium metaphor. We breathed a sigh of relief when he placed both feet on the lunar surface and appeared to be none the worse for wear. We all shared a defining moment for mankind, that we had the ability to explore the other heavenly bodies in our universe.

And number 1: Nobody who saw it happen on live television will ever forget September 11, 2001. The jet aircraft had hit both of New York’s Twin Towers, and we watched in horror as the tops of those buildings burned. We prayed for the people who were in those top floors and listened as the television commentators reported that tens of thousands of people were employed in those Twin Towers.

Then, suddenly we saw that needle-type structure on top of the tower begin to list, and in the next four or five seconds it seemed as though we filtered through a million thoughts and emotions. Oh my God, the top of the building is coming down. Oh my God, it’s collapsing straight down. Oh my God, the entire building is collapsing. Oh my God, thousands of people just died before my eyes.

And then the second one followed the first in equally terrifying fashion. In that four- or five-second moment, we knew the ravages of war that we had never known. We knew we were vulnerable when we had always presumed that we were not.

The events of that day will be remembered as perhaps the defining moment of our generation. Each of us will have our own specific mental imprint based on what we witnessed on live TV.

This column was written May 12, 2002, and published in several print publications across the country.

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