Opinion: How 58 hours in Midland, Texas, changed the future of TV news


Among those watershed moments was the story of Jessica McClure, also known as “Baby Jessica”: the toddler from Midland, Texas, whose rescue after falling 22 feet inside an abandoned well in 1987 still influences news as we know it today. Even then, the dense swarm of media attention that descended […]

Among those watershed moments was the story of Jessica McClure, also known as “Baby Jessica”: the toddler from Midland, Texas, whose rescue after falling 22 feet inside an abandoned well in 1987 still influences news as we know it today.

Even then, the dense swarm of media attention that descended on the West Texas town to cover the family’s plight signaled a shift in the way information is gathered and shared with millions of viewers at home. Yet some things reveal themselves more fully upon reflection. Looking back 34 years later as we made a short documentary on this event, we were able to observe in starker terms the effect that Baby Jessica’s story had on a community, a nation, and the way we create and consume news today.

By mid-October 1987, CNN had been around for seven years but was still a fledgling cable news organization based in Atlanta, working to solidify its place against the three network giants who dominated the nightly news: ABC, CBS and NBC.
On October 14, when word spread that 18-month-old McClure had fallen into an 8-inch wide well in her aunt’s Midland backyard, Ted Turner had built a machine that was ready for this moment. The burgeoning 24-hour cable news outlet hadn’t yet made a dent in the old guard’s captive nightly audiences, but it had established an infrastructure that could mobilize quickly, capturing and disseminating a story by breaking into any of its ongoing programming.

While other networks had rigid daytime or evening blocks of shows, CNN could share stories in real time, creating a steady stream of contact — and alongside that, a communal experience. The ongoing developments of a living, breathing baby trapped helplessly underground would help shape a 24-hour news cycle that people could connect with at any moment of the day.

What happened to McClure wasn’t an international — or even national — headline when local affiliate stations first arrived at the scene. Twenty-four hours later, the oil town was overrun with media as the appetite of the viewing audience proved to be insatiable. CNN crews showed up to find what was becoming an agonizingly slow rescue. News vans lined the streets bumper to bumper, and reporters slept on couches in local homes to be able to provide up-to-the second coverage on the dayslong nail-biter. As the New York Times reported in 1995, by the final moments of her rescue, CNN held the attention of 3.1 million households.

We interviewed some of those who witnessed this real-life drama unfold, and according to them, it seemed people were hungry not only for more on McClure’s rescue but to feel a part of something bigger — a community connecting and engaging through the care and concern they shared for an infant in distress.

“Everybody here cared. It didn’t matter if you were the mayor or the janitor,” Joe Faulkner, a neighbor who lived through the affair, told us for the documentary. “You believed after (the rescue of McClure), if something happened to you or your child or your spouse or anybody that you knew, people were going to show up and help regardless.”

And for those miles and miles away from Midland, the real-time live images made them feel present, right there with that child and her parents in this horrific situation. People felt that by watching, they were helping, with some viewers even skipping work to watch TV until they knew she was rescued. As the days passed, the task proved harder than initially thought, and by the third day it seemed nearly impossible. Prayer and hope were all there was.

Rescue worker Steven Forbes carries 18-month-old Jessica McClure shortly after her rescue from an abandoned well in Midland, Texas, on October 16,1987.

But while this uninterrupted access to the story created one experience among viewers at home, it had a different effect on some of those who were closest to the trauma, including first responder Robert O’Donnell.

O’Donnell, the paramedic who was slender enough to fit down the tunnel, failed on his first attempt to free McClure from the well’s tiny shaft. On his second attempt, the viewing audience sat riveted as they waited for him to return. It had been three days since her fall, and nobody was certain of the little girl’s condition. Then, in the darkness of the night, lit by giant floodlights, she emerged from the well swaddled in the arms of the paramedics, and every eye that had been glued to the news for days was now on O’Donnell too as he emerged from the depths. The spotlight fell on who appeared to be a simple, quiet man, and he was thrust forward into the national conversation — instantly becoming an American hero.

Fame can carry a heavy burden, and O’Donnell’s rise to fame came with a cost.

Eventually the light faded, and he was apparently left feeling, at least as best we can tell, alone and empty. Many have speculated that the post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after the event perhaps contributed to him tragically taking his own life eight years later.
McClure herself is now an adult with children of her own, and has studiously avoided the media while not living far from the well she was rescued from.

Although evening news has remained a staple, the 24-hour news cycle has become a part of our experience, ushering in the era of constantly refreshing web pages and alerts. And Baby Jessica’s rescue was so powerfully influential because, unlike other tragedies of the time, there was a chance that she would be saved. It was this hope that brought people together in a focused and all-encompassing way, creating a new kind of news experience.

It is during the rapid information turnover of today’s news cycles that the Baby Jessica story seems even more relevant; looking back, it reminds us that there are human beings on the other side of every breaking news event. After the crews pack up and head home, the story remains with the viewers, and more importantly, the subjects who lived it.

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