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Christmas Chaos: The News Never Stops

This essay was written by Danna Walker between bouts of chaos on CBS News' national desk in Washington

While most of the country pauses, at least briefly, in acknowledgement of Christmas Day, the news never stops.

This has been a holiday period particularly full of "breaking news" for that area of the world that comes under the auspices of the Washington News Desk. That's the official name for the large, horseshoe-shaped cubicle that looks something like the world's most brightly lit bar on the second floor of the CBS News Washington bureau.

The news-tenders who work there play a key, but generally unheralded role, in the making of what viewers see each day in polished format on The "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric", "The Early Show" and other CBS News broadcasts.

It all began last Saturday with one of the heaviest snowstorms on record in Washington - a situation that, alone, creates chaos and crisis for the news desk, which must make sure that reporters, producers and crews get to their destinations no matter the weather. Weather, with a capital W, is always a big story in itself. It affects everyone and guarantees an audience.

But this time, we had an additional unrelenting blast of atmospheric pressure - from atop Capitol Hill. The Senate was in around the clock to hash out the final wording on its health care reform plan. That meant last-minute news conferences, live stand-ups, network pool shots live from Capitol corridors, White House statements, and endless blustering, blathering and bloviating from the Senate floor. Er, I mean, it meant lots of news from the hallowed halls of Congress.

Special Report: Health Care Reform

It also meant that because my four-wheel drive SUV allowed me to report to my slot on the news desk at 6 a.m. Saturday, I didn't get to go home until 2 a.m. Monday. Many of my colleagues fared no better, though we did get to sleep across the street at a nice boutique hotel with an appropriately lit bar and a hot bath for the taking. A colleague who got a later ride with a courier in a cargo van brought me a change of clothes from her own closet.

After a decent sleep, it was back to the news desk on Monday to start anew, and lo unto me, glad tidings of a quiet night awaited me, with a day off the next day. While capital area school kids and the federal work force took snow days off, Washington finished digging out from the storm and the country awaited the final Senate health care vote, due early Christmas Eve.

After a breaking story strikes, I often think back to the beginning of the day and my wide-eyed innocence upon walking into the protective cocoon of the news desk, with its familiar and well-worn atmosphere - newspapers scattered, desk implements willy-nilly, 12-inch rubber band ball in its proper place - not knowing what awaits me. It usually starts out with a colleague telling me about some seemingly insignificant event that no one really cares about and then slowly the story builds into an urgency requiring dozens of phone calls, lightning-quick movement of crews and equipment, and a thousand silent prayers that everything works and we get on the air.

That's exactly what happened Wednesday night when I arrived late in the day and we got the word that a one-legged man had brandished a gun in Wytheville, Va. This seemed "local" - not something we would normally cover at the network level. But the man ended up taking hostages in the Wytheville post office and claiming to have an explosive. That meant we had to think ahead to needing that video - in case something awful happened.

As it turned out, the standoff was rather short-lived but it still meant that a two-person camera crew, a producer and a correspondent stood by for six hours waiting to see if their holiday would be ruined.

And, then what we thought would be the big story of the Holiday '09 season came and went as expected; the Senate voted. Finally. For those of us who had been following it up close, it was anti-climactic, but the AP billed it as an historic battle, which I guess it was:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In an epic struggle settled at dawn, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed health care legislation Thursday, a triumph for President Barack Obama that clears the way for compromise talks with the House on a bill to reduce the ranks of the uninsured and rein in the insurance industry.

So, that meant Christmas Day would be a plum pudding walk, right? If you've been reading this, you know the drill.

Here's the "tick tock," as they say at the networks:

3 p.m. - Word of someone lighting a firecracker on an airliner that landed safely in Detroit. Probably just a wacko who somehow slipped something past security.

4:30 p.m. - Word that there's something more to this story. Phones ring non-stop. Camera crews and correspondents start moving. Live shots anyone?

5 p.m. - Phone calls to producers and correspondents at home as they enjoy Christmas dinner with family and friends. For some reason, they're not glad to hear from me despite my jolly tone.

5:10 p.m. - Phone calls to "press duty officers" at FAA, Transportation Security Administration.

5:30 p.m. - Information that the fire cracker guy was on Homeland Security's radar and was actually trying to blow up the plane; claimed terrorist ties. Move crew set up in rain for one stand up to another location for another stand up.

6 p.m. - Cancel outside stand ups. Set up for pre-tape correspondent stand-up in newsroom.

6:30 p.m. - Prayers answered with outstanding broadcast containing breaking elements that other networks don't have. Correspondents on story from New York, Honolulu and Wheeling, W. Va. That might be a first!

So, my small part in this breaking news story ends as Christmas Day comes to a close. After I eat my chocolate pie leftovers brought from home, I plan for a possible live shot in the morning and I wonder: When I walk in at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, will I be here until 2 a.m. Monday?

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