A Big Story, and Small-Shot Shines

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

From big-shots and small-shots, an obit of Timothy J. McVeigh.

Would the media--which haven't paused this long for the ending of life since John F. Kennedy Jr. crashed into the sea--say they were noting not only McVeigh's execution, but the human wreckage he caused at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building?

And did they ever talk: Was he sorry? If not, why not? How well did he sleep his last night? What about that last meal? Did he request a sedative when he was strapped down? Where will his ashes go? As if this would make any difference to the 168 people he murdered here in 1995.

In they came, the EyeWitness Newses and NewsCenters from New York and Los Angeles, from Chicago and Tulsa, Okla., from the Missouri cities of St. Louis and Kansas City. They rumbled in with cameras rolling, live, local and late breaking, nosing satellite trucks into position end to end for several blocks, and erecting tall platforms downtown overlooking the Oklahoma City National Memorial. As they did at the airport near the transfer center where the families of McVeigh's victims saw him die in Terre Haute, Ind., on closed-circuit TV.

The media far exceeded visitors at the memorial site early Monday morning, and when survivors' family members were escorted to chair memorials aligned in rows on a lush strip of green, their every move and facial tic was captured by as many as two dozen cameras.

How best to provide moments of solitude, to give audiences time to weigh and interpret what's set before them? "I hope I find the right words to say," worried one TV reporter two days earlier. "I have a nervous feeling about it."

It was not Katie Couric from NBC's "Today," Charles Gibson from ABC's "Good Morning America," or any of the other big-time media gladiators clawing for supremacy here even as McVeigh was paying for his wickedness, all of them battle-tested veterans of Big Death spectaculars from Kennedy to Princess Diana.

Speaking instead was quiet, introspective Neely Tsoodle, a Native American reporter at KSWO-TV, the tiny ABC affiliate in Lawton, a southwestern Oklahoma strip malldom of 90,000 that can boast of leading the nation in Pizza Huts per square mile.

"How am I gonna cover it? What words to say? What is important for people to hear?" Those were the questions Tsoodle asked herself aloud Saturday in KSWO's studio just east of town.

A Chance to Interact With the Community

KSWO is no news nirvana as it competes with NBC and CBS affiliates 50 miles to the south in Wichita Falls, Texas, and two bigger, richer Oklahoma City stations available to Lawtonians by cable. In some ways it's a microcosm of deeply flawed larger stations and their foibles--self-interest and a sheared vision in an age when information is constantly being redefined. This is TV news after all, where ratings rule from coast to coast, from Mutt to Jeff.

In other ways, though, KSWO is Norman Rockwell's best America. As large, urban broadcasters falsely anoint themselves stations "of the people," KSWO intimately interacts with its community observing the local behavior and touching the pulse beats of its viewership of 26,000 ethnically mixed households.

Kiowa, Apache and Creek blood mingle in Tsoodle, 32. Her eight years there make her almost an anomaly at a station that is one of those broadcasting turnstiles through which aspiring young TV journalists pass en route to more bucks and glamour at stations up the media ladder.

The folks who watch KSWO are largely working class, military from Ft. Sill and agricultural in a region speckled by farms owned by the same families for generations. Viewers here are heavily Baptist and conservative, says Jan Stratton, a grandmother with deep roots in the community as a 21-year KSWO veteran married to Comanche-country Associate District Judge William Stratton.

Tina McGarry was working at a station in Oklahoma City as a news gofer when McVeigh blew apart the federal building. A 29-year-old KSWO reporter who lives in Lawton with her husband and 2-year-old son, she keeps on her refrigerator door a snapshot of a woman she befriended after covering the death of her husband in Topeka, Kan. "It was my first murder," said McGarry, who two years after starting at KSWO now yearns for something bigger.

How small is KSWO?

For one thing, the Texoma media market of Lawton-Wichita Falls, is 141st in the U.S. Oklahoma City ranks 45th, Tulsa 58th. For another, its barren white vans were notably dishless beside the decked-out mobile newsrooms flanking them here in this week's media gridlock. KSWO is technologically challenged, unable to beam in pictures from long distances because it lacks satellite equipment.

In other words, when Tsoodle and McGarry, who also was assigned to Oklahoma City with camera operators Eric Shows and Romeo St. Pierre, did reports live, they did it the old-fashioned way--by phone. And as they spoke, viewers saw only photos of them.

"I would love to do satellite shots," said McGarry, comes from a tiny hamlet in Oklahoma. "I would rather be covering this in Terre Haute."

Stratton would rather have seen her there too. But the cost would have been substantial, and the R.H. Drewry Group, which owns KSWO and its Texas sister stations in Amarillo, Waco and Midland-Odessa, is not known for throwing money around.

KSWO is so small that Shows getting badly bitten by a dog late Sunday became Stratton's worst nightmare. His 10th-hour replacement was weekend anchor Robert Burch, arriving in Oklahoma City with Tsoodle at 1:30 a.m. Monday. His camera skills? Next question.

Meanwhile, when a viewer phoned the station Saturday asking about the absence of a KSWO meteorologist, the call was taken by Stratton, who co-anchors weeknight newscasts. "We did lose a weatherman," she explained patiently to the caller. "We did mention it; you probably missed the newscast."

The chat was quaint and cozy, as if out of some dusty archive, in stark contrast to the destructive thunder brought on by McVeigh. "It's the biggest story to come along . . . maybe ever," Tsoodle said.

KSWO News Crew One of the First on Scene

Two Lawtonians had relatives who died in the blast, and little KSWO had one of the first news crews on the scene. It had dispatched a crew to Oklahoma City to cover a meeting of the state Legislature. "They were less than a block away from the Murrah building when it happened," Stratton said. "Our photog said she ran all the way there on broken glass."

Lawton was "very, very affected," Stratton said. "Ft. Sill provided the body bags. We sent a lot of ambulance workers, sheriffs people, police. At the blood institute here, there was a line around the block, people wanting to give blood. It showed their goodness," she said in a quivery voice.

At 6 a.m. Monday, after McGarry had reported live from the airport, Tsoodle was at the bombing memorial site, a few seconds from going live herself with a KSWO morning anchor. "Good morning, Jennifer," she began, cell phone pressed to her face while reading from a notebook, "I'm standing by the reflection pool and the mood is very peaceful."

Seated atop his canopied platform just behind her, "Good Morning America's" Charles Gibson was preoccupied too, while facing a monitor. Not many yards separated them, but the distance seemed incalculable.

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