Pittsburgh TV stations pre-empted their regularly scheduled soap operas until 2 p.m. yesterday afternoon for a real-life saga, the injury of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a motorcycle accident.
Local Internet sites and radio talk shows also jumped on the story, with both general and sports talk hosts spending most of their shifts on the topic. Even when few details were available, callers and bloggers were already taking the ball and running with it. While most callers expressed concern for Mr. Roethlisberger's safety, they began to raise questions that will haunt the airwaves and Web sites for weeks to come. Within hours, the story of a seriously injured hometown hero had morphed into a debate on motorcycle helmet laws and personal freedom vs. team loyalties
On television, news reporters and anchors did what they always do in "breaking news" situations: report what they know, speculate about what they don't and, if all else fails, play doctor and even armchair psychiatrist.
"The fact that there's a lot of blood doesn't necessarily mean the injuries are severe," WTAE's Sally Wiggin said in the early going.
"The fact that he did not go through the windshield is a good sign," said KDKA's John Shumway.
"I'm sure this will be a humbling experience for Ben," offered WTAE's Michelle Wright.
Early on, KDKA's Stacy Smith continuously cited a source ("one of our KDKA investigators, who's usually pretty accurate") who claimed Roethlisberger was seen walking and talking after the accident, but eyewitness accounts on all three stations indicated Mr. Roethlisberger was dazed and confused.
Long before the quarterback's condition was known, stations began replaying Terry Bradshaw's worries about the QB riding his motorcycle without a helmet, some overstating it more than others. WPXI's Alby Oxenreiter accurately restated Mr. Bradshaw's concern and finagled an offhand comment of affirmation for Mr. Roethlisberger's future out of Steelers president Art Rooney II.
"The future of this franchise is in limbo just months after winning the Super Bowl," said WTAE's Andrew Stockey.
"If only Ben had listened to [Bradshaw's] advice, he might be in better shape right now," Mr. Stockey said, beginning the media scolding that was perhaps inevitable. "This may shake him up enough to definitely wear a helmet or maybe not ride a motorcycle."
ESPN/WEAE-AM (1250) hosts Guy Junker and Ed Crow were among the first talk shows on the air in the moments after the news broke. Sounding shaken and upset, they focused on early reaction to the news among callers. A caller who wanted to know who would replace Mr. Roethlisberger at the start of the season was promptly dumped and chastised.
ESPN/WEAE sports talk host Mark Madden quickly established the tone for his afternoon-drive talk show, saying he'd hang up on people who called to criticize Mr. Roethlisberger for not wearing a helmet, as well as Steelers fans worried about the future of the team. "Let's put normal life for Ben ahead of football for us," he told listeners.
KDKA-AM (1020) pre-empted the syndicated Jim Cramer investment show to add an hour of combined breaking news and talk segments hosted by KDKA talk host Fred Honsberger. Between updates, he talked about the renewed debate over whether motorcyclists should wear helmets.
Mr. Honsberger interviewed former KDKA morning host John Cigna, an avid motorcyclist who used to rail against wearing helmets -- until he had an accident that might have killed him if he hadn't been wearing one. Now, he's an equally vocal advocate for helmets.
"It was an epiphany. No doubt about it," Mr. Cigna said of his own, similar experience. Of Mr. Roethlisberger, he said: "It was stupid. He's got a responsibility to the community."
Callers ran the gamut of opinion, even criticizing Mr. Honsberger for shifting the focus away from the injured Steeler's condition to the helmet debate.One caller, a teacher, observed that sports figures and actors are celebrities who have a big influence on young kids. "Kids look up to them. These guys have to remember that."
Internet traffic was brisk as Steelers fans worldwide scrambled for details about Big Ben's condition. At the Post-Gazette's Web site, www.post-gazette.com, there was substantially more traffic than on any given Monday -- including the Monday after the Super Bowl. At various times after word of the accident started to spread, gaining access to many local news outlets' sites was difficult if not impossible.