CRAWFORD BLOG | Covering Ali's death and funeral, a first-person - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD BLOG | Covering Ali's death and funeral, a first-person media reflection

Posted: Updated:
AP PHOTO: Boxing gloves hang on a plaque in front of the childhood home of Muhammad Ali. AP PHOTO: Boxing gloves hang on a plaque in front of the childhood home of Muhammad Ali.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — From a media standpoint, life gets back to normal this week. But after a lot of discussion, on social media and elsewhere, about why last week, and the death of Muhammad Ali, was covered the way it was in this city, I thought I ought to talk about why it was such an extraordinary week for media types like me.

Here’s the short answer: Because barring a terrible tragedy, it is the biggest international news story this city will see in my lifetime. And it’s not even close. (And let’s hope it stays that way, by the way.)

I remember sitting in the office with my WDRB colleague and friend Rick Bozich as we were writing our columns after Friday's memorial service and saying, “It’s all downhill from here.”

ARCHIVE | Coverage of Ali's memorial week from Eric Crawford and Rick Bozich

He remarked that this had been an event we all knew was coming, one that for years had left him apprehensive about how things would work out, even woke him up at night with worry over whether he would be ready and in position to deal with it.

People around the world cared about this story. There were, next to our live shot position on Main Street on Saturday, TV stations from England and Canada close by. Sky News. Al Jazeera. The major American broadcast networks. ESPN. (See a collection of Ali front pages from around the world here.)

If you are in this business, without meaning any disrespect to Ali or his family, or trivializing the profound loss for them and for everyone who cared about Ali, these kinds of weeks are the weeks you spend your entire career preparing for.

And it’s not out of some kind of morbid need to pounce on a “story,” so much as it is an important thing, and the wish to do it justice and describe it well, because it is history. In my case, history in my hometown.

To give you an idea of the kind of preparation that is undertaken, The Courier-Journal’s first Ali Commemorative edition, published shortly after Ali’s death, included stories from a half-dozen writers no longer at the paper. The front-page story was written by the great C. Ray Hall, who I believe retired in 2010. It shows how long that has been in the works.

My column on Ali’s death hadn't been in the works for that long, but I had worked at it on and off for two years. It ran more than 4,000 words (you can read it here). A year and a half ago, I’d gotten to interview two of his daughters and a former business manager for the documentary “I Am Ali.” Last fall, WDRB’s Mike Lacett had covered his Sports Illustrated event at the Ali Center (credentialing was so tough that I couldn’t even get in, only a television camera) with the notion that things he would be gathering likely would be used in a time like this.

We were ready — and we weren’t. We were ready to cover Ali’s passing. I wasn’t ready for what we would see when the city came together to celebrate and memorialize his life a week later.

THE TIMELINE

On the morning of Friday, June 3, we got word that Ali’s condition was serious. I got into the office at 11 a.m. Several hours later, we got word that Ali’s condition was grave. Sources told us that Louisville police officers — through a protocol put in place long ago, had flown to Phoenix to be there to escort Ali’s body back to Louisville. It was time. In mid-afternoon, a source told us Ali had died, but there would be no confirmation until family members could be notified. So, we waited. ESPN had reporters on the ground in Arizona. I figured we would see it soon from them. 

Instead, that piece of information turned out to be wrong. We would learn that Ali’s time of death didn’t come until late Friday night, Eastern time. But we didn’t know that then.

From about 3 p.m. on, Bozich and I sat waiting to post our stories immediately, then go on television to talk about the impact and life of “The Greatest.” We waited. Through the 4 p.m. news, and the 6. We took a few minutes to go out to dinner, and ran by Cave Hill Cemetery, because we’d been told that was where Ali would be buried. The cemetery was closed, however, so we just drove around a bit, then back to the office, to wait for the 10 p.m. news, then the 11. I was the last to leave the office, at about five minutes after midnight. We learned of Ali’s death at about 12:15.

I watched ESPN and its fantastic Ali tribute coverage, almost all night. We were to go back on WDRB’s News in in Morning at 6 a.m., so it was a short night. But it would be a long week. I can’t imagine how Ali’s family and close friends got through such an extended period before the funeral and burial.

ALI OVERLOAD

Many people I encountered wondered why there was SO MUCH Ali coverage. One man said, “You’re ignoring all the other news.” Actually, that was far from the case. While I didn’t do an analysis of our television coverage, I can tell you that even during the week of Ali’s death, stories about him made up just over a third of the stories on our website at WDRB.com. There was lots of other news being covered.

I heard from Veterans angry that Ali was receiving so much attention. I get that. Several complained, why not cover some Veterans who actually fought and served? I pointed out that during the same week we were covering Ali’s death and funeral, Lindsay Allen had traveled to Washington D.C. with an honor flight and did a wonderful story on the veterans she encountered. If you haven’t seen that story, please watch it by clicking here. It's worth your time.

The best I can explain is that if national news outlets are devoting a great deal of attention to a story, then local outlets where the story is happening are going to be doing even more.

And there was interest locally, as best I can measure. I only know by how many people read the web stories I post. Ali was of great interest.

PROFITING FROM LOSS

When people took to Craigslist to sell seats to the Ali Memorial, there was an angry backlash. It seemed crass. I had no problem with that criticism.

But I don’t see the difference in that and newspaper selling a $10 stack of commemorative newspapers for $40. They made available a “limited edition” Ali poster online, but only for those who buy a subscription. Unless all those proceeds are going to the Ali Center — and I don’t believe they are — then what’s the difference? One employee there posted a note from corporate asking employees to wear company shirts and hold up commemorative front pages as the procession passed by the building on Broadway. Most ignored it.

I don't disapprove of it. Those are items people want. There's a market for them. But let's not pretend people aren't taking advantage of a person's death.

Several people said, “You’re just televising so much of this because the ratings make you money.”

The strange thing is, I’m betting television stations in the market lost money covering this story. Long stretches without commercial interruptions mean that sales staffs have to get back to clients to make good on the lost ads.

There were plenty of people making money downtown on the day of the memorial service. People hawking T-shirts and buttons and anything with Ali’s name on it. I don’t think the champ would have minded. These weren’t people getting rich.

Louisville’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau also sold T-shirts — with all proceeds going to the Ali Center.

I ran into people who traveled halfway across the world, literally, who didn’t buy memorial tickets from those looking to sell at fairly reasonable prices because they’d heard people shaming the practice and didn’t want to be disrespectful. That shows you how much respect they had for Ali and his family.

THE PROCESSIONAL

I’ve never seen anything like Ali’s final, slow trip through Louisville. The outpouring of emotion from the crowds.

At about 10:30, I jumped onto the TV set to join Candyce Clifft, Sterling Riggs and Rick Bozich. I think we were on TV for the next 2 1/2 hours or so without commercial interruption.

I don’t expect I’ll ever do that much non-stop TV again, unless it’s for some kind of ballgame. But even then there are breaks. And this wasn’t a game. I did the best to describe what I saw, which is what we did all day. At times, though, I’ll admit, I was a spectator. Being on TV describing things means you’re not up close looking at them, getting in position to write about them later. That would make writing a column about all of this especially difficult. 

WDRB’s Stephan Johnson, reporting from the entrance of Cave Hill Cemetery, caught the emotion of that moment, almost carnival like, honestly, during his 7 minutes of live reporting at the end of the processional, even speaking with family members in some of the cars as they waited to pull through the gates. His was outstanding work, as were interviews from Fallon Glick, Samantha Chatman, Danielle Lama, Travis Ragsdale and everyone along the route.

The atmosphere downtown around the arena was something like I’ve never seen. People from around the world, Jim Brown on one TV set and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on another.

Rick and I taped a segment, saw Will Smith arrive for the service, and went to the media entrance in the rear of the building to go into the KFC Yum! Center, when we were told media admission had been stopped by the secret service. Nobody had told us there was a cut-off time. A large number of media members were turned away. We managed to get our hands on tickets and were going to just go in the public entrance, but our computer bags stopped us.

Had it not been for Joe Lampkin, director of security at the arena, who we had known for years through his security work at U of L, I guess we’d have walked back to the office to watch on TV. And that wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But Joe walked us down to the media room himself, and we were able to watch the service.

Sitting back at my desk, I suppose I spent about three hours writing my column, maybe more. I was in no hurry. I posted it late, which usually means you’re not going to get many web hits. There’s a huge value in being first on the web, but on this story, I didn’t really care. I just wanted to write something I thought would be good, and would stand up over time. The column I wrote is here.

CONCLUSION

There will be other big stories in Louisville. There always are.  There won’t be another one like this one, not global in scale. For my column, I decided the best thing I could do was provide the best snapshot of the day I could, from where I sat, and what it meant to someone who not only lives here now, but who has lived here for most of my life, and who grew up here, in Louisville.

The rest of the world may not care about such an angle, but sometimes you have to carve out your little slice, and do the best you can.

It was a strange, surreal week. Trying to say the right things on television, and in the written word, are two different challenges. One I am at home with, one I still am not. I am glad, however, I was in a position to be around for this. Not because I was glad to cover the death of Ali, so much, but because you feel a responsibility to try to do right by people when they pass away. And you never feel like you do. With someone of Ali’s magnitude, there’s no way to do it. I was too young to cover some of the more important parts of Ali’s life. I wanted to make sure I did my best covering his final trip back home to Louisville.

It was, whatever your feelings about Ali, an important day in Louisville’s history. The news coverage needed to reflect that, and I believe it did.

Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.

  • Sign Up for the WDRB Sports Newsletter

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
  • Sign Up for WDRB's Sports Newsletter

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2017 WDRB. All Rights Reserved. For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.