Baby Jessica Anniversary
October 18, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media frenzies can be generated by stories both large and small. Sometimes it's hard to predict which events will capture the nation's imagination. But history tells us that the public will always respond to stories about people trapped in holes. On an early morning, 15 years ago this past Wednesday, an 18 month old girl playing in her back yard in Midland, Texas fell into a well. By the time she was freed 58 hours later, everyone in America would know her name --Jessica McClure. On the Media's Mike Pesca looks back not just on Baby Jessica but on the media magic that is created when a person is trapped underground.
MIKE PESCA: Two and a half months ago 9 miners from Somerset County, Pennsylvania were freed from the Que Creek Mine. A safety expert from the United Mine Workers Union called the rescue "unprecedented in modern times." Miraculous? Yes. Unprecedented? Decidedly not. Man - or men - or sometimes babies trapped underground has been a story for as long as people have been telling stories -- or at least selling them in newspapers or broadcasting them. There was the case of Floyd Collins. [SOUNDTRACK FROM FILM ACE IN THE HOLE]
KIRK DOUGLAS/JOURNALIST: You never heard of Floyd Collins?!
MIKE PESCA: That's Kirk Douglas in the 1951 movie Ace in the Hole. He plays a journalist who stumbles across a man trapped in a cave. Here he reminds a cub reporter about a similar story. [SOUNDTRACK FROM FILM ACE IN THE HOLE]
KIRK DOUGLAS/JOURNALIST: Floyd Collins! Doesn't that ring a bell?
MAN: No, not to me it doesn't.
KIRK DOUGLAS/JOURNALIST: 1925? Kentucky? Guy pinned way down in that cave? One of the biggest stories that ever broke. Front page on every paper in the country for weeks!
MAN: Maybe I did hear about it.
KIRK DOUGLAS/JOURNALIST: And maybe you heard that a reporter on a Louisville paper crawled in for the story and came out with a Pulitzer Prize!
MIKE PESCA: It's true! The 1926 Pulitzer Prize for reporting was awarded to William Burke Miller of the Louisville Courier Journal. Miller known as "Skeets" became a character in the 1995 musical Floyd Collins which dealt with the drama in the cave and the chaos in the newsroom. [SONG FROM THE MUSICAL FLOYD COLLINS]
CHORUS: [CHANTING] CAVE CITY COMMA CAPITAL K - CAPITAL Y-- FEBRUARY 4-- [SINGING] CAVE VICTIM LOSING HOPE--
MAN: ACCORDING TO SKEETS MILLER COMMA COLLINS IS QUICKLY SLIPPING INTO A STATE OF DEEP DESPAIR--
CHORUS: ASKING FOR MILK--
MAN: THE TRAPPED MAN WAS HEARD TO CRY OUT-- GET ME OUT OF HERE COMMA, EVEN IF YOU HAVE TO TEAR MY FOOT OFF! EXCLAMATION CLOSE QUOTE
MAN: FLOYD IS REPORTED TO BE IN A STATE OF DELIRIUM, CONVERSING WITH THE CAVE CRICKETS AND EVEN BEGGING THEM TO HURRY - HURRY -
CHORUS: HURRY, HURRY, HURRY-- PULL ME OUT!
MIKE PESCA: A little more than a decade after Floyd Collins, reporter J. Frank Willis of the Canadian Radio Commission covered the collapse of the Moose River Mine - Nova Scotia, Canada.
J. FRANK WILLIS: This is a broken country down here -- drab and desolate; a country of scrub and second growth; of rock -- rock - relentless, hard, cruel hard. It is against rock of this sort that miners for the past week have fought and fought, grim-lipped, determined. And they're winning their fight -- inch by inch the rock is retreating.
MIKE PESCA: Today news networks never leave these stories. Even if little is happening on the scene, time will be filled with talking heads, recovery experts, and in the absence of that, speculation. Willis, however, was fiercely committed to the notion that only that which was newsworthy should be broadcast.
J. FRANK WILLIS: As the rumor has gone abroad and has been published as a fact that the mine was in danger of caving in. This is absolutely not true. We're standing here. We can spit into this pit, and yet from thousands if miles away people are contradicting what we have to say. This must stop. I'm stopping these broadcasts now until something definite happens.
MIKE PESCA: One man died; two survived. The Moose River Cave In was one of the first times that radio displayed its power to connect with listeners on a real life event occurring in real time. A decade later TV would demonstrate that ability in its coverage of yet another person trapped in a hole. In 1949, three year old Kathy Fiscus fell into a well near Los Angeles. Local station KTLA's round the clock coverage was groundbreaking in that it proved TV could find ample drama outside the scripted world of the studio. In fact, it was a KTLA reporter who informed her family that Kathy had died. Her grave marker reads: A Little Girl Who Brought the World Together for a Moment. Almost 40 years later there was another moment -- another little girl was trapped in a well -- Jessica McClure. Mary Alice Williams was one of CNN's primary anchors in 1987.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: We were the only ones on the air when this 18 month old baby girl fell into a well, and suddenly all the huge international stories melted away. Of course many, many hours later the broadcast networks caught on to the drama of this event.
BOB FURNAD: We were still rather looked down on by the other networks; they didn't consider us to be equals.
MIKE PESCA: Bob Furnad was CNN's vice president and senior producer during the Jessica McClure rescue.
BOB FURNAD: Our ratings shot up as people left the three broadcast networks assuming, correctly so, that they'd do the story and then go back to their regular programming and that we'd stay with it -- and our ratings spiked, and for the first time we beat the three broadcast networks in eyeballs.
MIKE PESCA: And that's what made the Jessica McClure story a watershed for CNN. It confirmed what was an operating theory -- that this new way of covering a story, wall to wall, was the formula for success. However, former anchor Mary Alice Williams thinks cable took the wrong lesson from the little girl in the well.
MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: What it led to was the wall to coverage of O.J. Simpson, and the motive for watching O.J. was pure prurience. There was no other reason. It was a, it was a collective schadenfreude -- "look how the mighty have fallen." Baby Jessica wasn't that. It was the opposite! It was a collective hope - a collective prayer -- to save a person's life. A baby's life.
MIKE PESCA: Such is the fine line in TV news between pathos and bathos -- between bathos and exploitation. It's not a happily ever after story for the rest of the Jessica McClure participants either. Jessica herself still lives in Texas; plays the French horn and makes A's and B's in school. She has a trust fund in excess of one million dollars. The only interview she does is with Ladies Home Journal which recently revealed that Jessica had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Her parents, teenagers at the time, divorced. Her rescuer, Robert O'Donnell couldn't handle the stress of having been a hero in the world's eyes only to see the spotlight snatched away so quickly. He bored co-workers with endless stories of his time in the hole, squabbled with fellow rescuers over payment for the TV movie, developed dependence on prescriptions painkillers and in 1995 took his own life with a shotgun blast to the head. The Que Creek miners are also having problems, the Washington Post reported last week. One of the miners, John Unger, fled Somerset County for a vacation at the beach. Alone one night he began digging a hole in the sand until it was big enough for him to fit into. He stayed in that hole until 2 in the morning. Bob Long, who pinpointed rescue efforts outside the mine, has become the source of the miners' resentment because he got an equal share of the Movie of the Week payments. Perhaps most interesting is what happened to Skeets Miller who interviewed Floyd Collins in 1925. He left Louisville soon after he won his Pulitzer and moved to radio. By 1947 he was at NBC where he served as assignment editor for the company's newest venture --television. For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca. [SONG FROM MUSICAL FLOYD COLLINS]
MAN: [SINGING] OH COME ALL YOU YOUNG PEOPLE AND LISTEN WHILE I TELL THE FATE OF FLOYD COLLINS THE LAD WE ALL KNEW WELL HIS FACE WAS FAIR AND HANDSOME HIS HEART WAS TRUE AND BRAVE HIS BODY NOW LIES SLEEPING IN A LONELY SANDSTONE CAVE OH, MOTHER DON'T YOU WORRY DEAR FATHER DON'T YOU CARE....