One giant leap for mankind, and one quiet exit on TV
New York • By the yardstick of history, Neil Armstrong was among the most accomplished men ever to walk on the planet that he looked upon from afar one magical week in July 1969.
Television news didn't seem to fully recognize the importance of the first human to walk on the moon on the weekend he died. In the hours after Armstrong's death was announced, news networks were airing canned programming jailhouse documentaries, a rerun interview with Rielle Hunter, Mike Huckabee's weekend show. Menacing satellite pictures of Tropical Storm Isaac had much more airtime than Armstrong hopping on the lunar surface. Talk of the upcoming GOP national convention sucked up the air.
A trio of factors played in to the lack of attention.
First, Armstrong died on a Saturday. Not just any Saturday, when news organizations have a skeletal staff, but a late August weekend. Half the country is at the beach. It's not a stretch to think inexperience on duty might have played a role in NBC News' embarrassing gaffe: a website headline that read: "Astronaut Neil Young, first man to walk on the moon, dies at age 82." (NBC called it a staffer error and said the mistake was taken down after seven minutes.)
His death came as somewhat of a surprise, too. Everyone dies, of course, and most news organizations have prepared material on hand to mark the passing of famous people. In many cases, though, there is advance word that someone is very ill, giving the media a chance to prepare and plan.
Armstrong's determined effort to live a quiet, private life after his astronaut days also left TV at a disadvantage. There was relatively little tape on hand to roll from interviews reminiscing about his experiences, reunions with old astronauts or public appearances. No Armstrong chats with David Letterman. No appearances in music videos. There was the moon walk but not much else.
Notable deaths often give viewers the chance to reflect, to put into perspective lives of great accomplishment or great notoriety.
Not so with Neil Armstrong. His death was like his life: strangely muted given the magnitude of his achievements.