When the shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff Jan. 28, 1986,
Cable News Network -- which was then the only all-news channel -- carried the
disaster on live TV.
Just over 17 years later, CNN and its new rivals, Fox News Channel and MSNBC,
brought viewers another historic tragedy Saturday morning: the breakup of the
shuttle Columbia, which killed seven astronauts.
The networks scrambled in the early hours to obtain footage of the breakup
from local affiliates and amateur photographers.
By Saturday afternoon, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC were running images of pieces
of the shuttle that had been found in Texas, and network anchors delicately
informed viewers that some body parts had been found.
Some reporters who were assigned to Ground Zero Sept. 11 -- including Fox
News' Rick Leventhal and MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield -- were sent to Texas.
CNN called on Lou Dobbs -- who left in 1999 to found Space.com before
returning in 2001 -- sending him to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The all-news networks ran no ads until 8 p.m. Saturday. By then, their
promotional machines were in gear.
Fox called the disaster "Tragedy in the Sky: The Space Shuttle
Columbia," CNN's graphics called it "Columbia: The Shuttle
Tragedy" and MSNBC went with "Columbia Tragedy: Search for Answers."
It was nearly impossible to find any news from Iraq on CNN, Fox News and
MSNBC, except for Iraqi reaction to Columbia's demise.
While the all-news networks went with wall-to-wall coverage of
Columbia, at least one basic-cable network made a tactful schedule
change. FX replaced the 8 p.m. run of Armageddon -- which depicts a space
shuttle being destroyed by an asteroid at the beginning of the movie -- with
Sigourney Weaver's Alien.
MSNBC had the strongest coverage during the 8 p.m. hour Saturday, as it
simulcast a special from NBC's Tom Brokaw. CBS, ABC and Fox stuck to their
regular primetime schedules.
Brokaw ran the first interviews with family members of the astronauts as he
talked with Kristie Chadwick, the sister of pilot William McCool, and the aunt
and uncle of mission specialist Laurel Clark.
As he has during previous tragedies, Brokaw offered a calm and reassuring
voice. "Goodnight, and hug your children," he said at the end of the