Recalling the Challenger tragedy

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded 29 years ago today, killing all seven astronauts aboard, I was working as a State House reporter for The News Tribune of Woodbridge. It’s one of those days a journalist always remembers because it involved reporting a historic event — – and in this instance an extremely tragic one.

For me, there were several additional reasons why Jan. 28, 1986, remains a vivid memory.

Professionally, I wrote a story that day on the New Jersey congressional delegation’s reaction to the explosion. It was one of the first times I recall relying on the then-new technology of fax machines to obtain comments from some of our congressional representatives. Our newspaper didn’t yet have this “revolutionary” device, but a colleague at another news organization (one we didn’t compete with, I guess) allowed us to use his company’s machine.

What also made the day stand out was the fact that the Challenger disaster occurred at a time when News Tribune employees were engaged in a labor dispute with Macromedia Inc., which had just purchased the paper. Macromedia owned The Record of Hackensack, which was a non-union paper. The News Tribune, on the other hand, was a union paper, and I had the unfortunate timing of having been elected president of the Tribune’s union chapter just a few weeks before the sale to Macromedia was announced.

By Jan. 28, the day of the explosion, we were embroiled in a tense and complex labor dispute. Entrance to our building was blocked by pickets from the truck drivers union whose members delivered the paper to newsstands and stores. Reporters were not sure if we even were still part of a union since our contract was with the old owners. Many of us staged a “byline protest,” which meant we continued to cover our beats and report stories, but refused to have our bylines placed on the top of our articles. Nearly 30 years later, a “byline protest” sounds silly and trivial, but at the time, it was one of the few things we felt we could control.

I remember the “byline protest” because the Challenger story was one of the few times I did agree to have my byline appear while the labor dispute was underway. I suppose my desire to be a part of recording history trumped the message we were trying to deliver with our protest. Ironically, although I have an office drawer filled with newspaper clippings from various places where I worked, my Challenger story is not among them

The Challenger tragedy, however, continues to be a part of my professional career. When I teach speechwriting, I rely heavily on What I Saw in the Revolution, a book written by Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She wrote the Challenger speech, which Reagan delivered to the nation on Jan. 28, 1986, in lieu of the State of the Union address, which had been scheduled for that evening.

Noonan’s story of the process she used to write an extremely important speech in just a few hours time always has been – and will continue to be – an important lesson for all types of communication students. It also was a lesson that helped me years later when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated while reentering the earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven crew members.

At the time, I was working in the New Jersey Governor’s Office as a deputy communications director for then-Gov. Jim McGreevey. The Columbia tragedy occurred on a Saturday morning while the governor and senior staff members were prepping for the state’s annual budget address. I was home, and after watching the initial news reports for a few minutes and taking in the magnitude of what had happened, I realized the governor was going to need a statement.

Recalling the steps that Noonan took to write the Challenger speech, I quickly drafted a statement, sent it to the governor for review, and following approval, got it out to the news media.

By the time I got back to the TV, the news reports were including the governor’s words about the tragedy. The statement wasn’t as long or as dramatic as Noonan’s Challenger speech, nor was it an address to the nation. Nonetheless it served a needed function – something that communication professionals, journalists as well as PR folks, do regularly and instinctively during times of tragedy and crisis.

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