Debriefing ESPN/ABC’s coverage of the Wheldon crash: Little takes offense to Ashley Judd’s tweets

Friday’s media column will focus more on how the late IRL driver Dan Wheldon had a budding career as a TV racing analyst. But in talking to three reporters who were at the Las Vegas race last Sunday and how they saw things transgress in the reporting of Wheldon’s death, it’s worth specifically reviewing that as a topic. We’ll break it down this way:


== From Jamie Little, the ESPN/ABC pit reporter:

On how the news came out during the telecast: “I was at the University Medical Center in the trauma center, where his three brothers were, his wife. It was a while before they realized I was with the media — I had my fire suit on and they finally kicked me out. The league had the final say in it. I had known about it but I didn’t feel comfortable getting it on the air yet until it went through the proper channels.

“I had been at the track medical center and all the drivers were talking about Dan, but I wasn’t allowed to say that he had been airlifted. I had it confirmed and told my producer, ‘I know it’s him and we need to tell the viewers,’ and we finally did that. But then it was a long time before the drivers really knew. They knew the situation was grave but it wasn’t until the drivers’ meeting that it was announced.

“From my perspective, I’m not a local reporter and I’ve never covered this kind of thing, but being in that hospital where my dad worked as a surgeon was all new to me. I was like in this bubble trying to get information. It was just awful. Then I was trying to get on the air (by phone) and I couldn’t hear anything. I just got a countdown from the producer to go on, and that’s all we could get. We didn’t have time to feed a tape on it.

“When we were at the track medical center, I just kept watching everyone’s body language. I talked to Paul Tracy, and he’s the only one who’d speak, and he said that Dan would have a ‘long road ahead.’ I think Will Power saw more than he’d like to imagine. He’s going to be a mess for awhile.

“I did send out a tweet when I was in the car going to the hospital, but that’s all I could muster: ‘I’m on my way and will give updates as soon as I can.’ After we confirmed the death, I could just tweet: ‘We lost a great one.’ I couldn’t put myself into tweeting anything else. The protocol was on. It wasn’t my place to do anything more. I did see a tweet from Ashley Judd (Dario Franchitti’s wife) who said the vitals were good. I got upset when I saw that. Why would she have the nerve to say anything? It wasn’t accurate. I took offense to that. Twitter could be a great took for news when you’re at a track, but sometimes, it’s a real determent.”

== From Versus’ Robin Miller:


On remembering how the events took place: ” When I first saw the replay, I thought there’d be two or three drivers killed. They covered Dan’s car with a tarp — he may have still been in it. I just know when I saw Paul Tracy come out of the hospital about 10 or 15 minutes after the crash, he said to me, ‘It’s bad,’ then I know from experience, it’s over. I called (people at) Speed (Channel) and told them to prepare for the worst.

“The protocol is: You can’t die at the track, it has to be at a hospital. So I’m sure that’s why he was flown there. Everyone’s running around and people are tweeting. You just don’t say anything until you know what you’re talking about. When you’re sitting around for an hour now, that isn’t good. But then, I heard someone on the PA system tell the crowd that all the drivers walked away. Who told you that?

On having Wheldon’s in-car camera on live as the crash was happening: “It makes me think he didn’t see it coming. The camera is up higher on the roll bar, and that’s the first thing that gets torn off. When you’re way down low in the corner, I’m guessing he didn’t see it and then ran over Tracy and that’s what launched him and sent him into the fence, cockpit first.”


On the ESPN/ABC telecast, a live in-camera shot from Dan Wheldon’s car shows the accident taking place in the top right corner — one that he apparently didn’t see and led to him flying over Paul Tracy’s car and into the netting around that turn, leading to his death on Sunday.


== From Marty Reid, the ESPN/ABC race caller:

“The first thing that happens in those situations, you remind everyone – especially (analyst) Eddie (Cheever), who had not been through this – don’t speculate and don’t assume. You remember to make it informative, but not gruesome. You try to be positive, but be factual. And you above all, be compassionate. Always remind yourselves : He had family and friends watching. If you stick to those basic tenants, you have a much better chance of staying on track.

“Our broadcast goes worldwide. Do we want Dan’s parents in England hearing the news from us the first time on television? No way. That’s inexcusable. So yes, it took an awful long time. But the one thing I’m most proud of the entire 3-hour broadcast is we didn’t have one fact that turned out to be incorrect. That’s far and way the most important thing because in this day in age, all of that was out on YouTube the moment after it happened.

“It never gets easier. But the experience that everyone has from going through that before, and not everyone did, it tears the young kids apart. A lot of them knew Dan well. The people have been kind and gracious for all of us on the air, but the ones behind the scenes were just as involved and committed and did such great work.

“You have no idea what goes into all this. At times, there were probably three different phone conversations going on with ESPN officials trying to get information and make sure we were accurate. The rules (in media) keep changing and the line doesn’t stay still anymore. We’re never going to put out there something that isn’t either confirmed by Indy in an official capacity or at the hospital.”

On how the live pictures could tell the story of what was happening even if there was no official word to say on the air: “As soon as we heard about a drivers’ meeting, we know things are very, very grim. But until we get the definite word — and some folks thought we knew and held it. but we did not know. Until it’s official, we held out hope.

On the replays of the wreck at the end of the broadcast, with Reid’s explanation that ABC decided to show them: “I was OK with it. We stayed on the wide angle shots. It’s possible that if this was 15 years ago, we might not have done it. But the line keeps changing. When Jeff Bodine got into a serious crash in the Truck Series, the producer made a decision: We will not show this again until we know that everyone’s OK. And we didn’t. Benny Parson was with me and it took about an hour before we found out everyone was OK, and then we were OK with it, too. But the Internet makes everything instantaneous. It’s a slippery slope. Twitter and Facebook can be informative, but it’s also too quick on the draw.”

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