Tribune looks back for its 50th anniversary: Sonny Bono’s death grabbed headlines 10 years ago this week
Snow levels were at three-fourths the annual average and new California laws had just taken effect, but the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s front page on Jan. 7, 1998, was dominated by the death two days earlier of an entertainment icon-turned-congressman.
Headlines followed the report of Sonny Bono’s death in a skiing accident at Heavenly Mountain Resort on Jan. 5, 1998. Bono was found by the ski patrol after an apparent collision with a tree off the resort’s Orion run.
The national news media followed the headlines.
“The response was immediate and very large,” said John Wagnon, Heavenly’s vice president of marketing and sales.
In the 1960s, Bono achieved commercial success as a singer with then-wife Cher, with whom he later starred in CBS’ “The Sonny and Cher Show.”
A frequent visitor to the South Shore, Bono performed at Harrah’s on eight occasions and was a participant in the John Denver Ski Classic until 1984.
While Michael Kennedy’s skiing death at Aspen Mountain the week before Bono’s death may have contributed to the immense amount of national media attention, a seemingly unrelated news story also played a role in coverage of the incident, Wagnon said.
Satellite trucks from national news organizations were in Sacramento awaiting the start of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s trial and were quickly dispatched to the South Shore as word of Bono’s death spread.
While the media spotlight would not last long, the effects of the accident likely still are being felt today, Wagnon added.
“The way that works is that the immediate news story more or less runs its course over a two-day period, and then the follow-up tends to be the newsmagazine shows,” he said.
“We’re sure that the friends and family of Sonny Bono still feel the loss, and our hearts go out to them,” Wagnon said. “It’s a very sad situation when someone has an accident like that.”
Bono’s widow, Mary Bono, replaced him in the House of Representatives, representing California’s 44th District.
Last month, she married Florida Rep. Connie Mack.
Although Mary Bono was not available for comment Wednesday, her chief of staff, Frank Cullen, recalled how Sonny Bono’s death encouraged her to run for political office.
“Obviously, she was not thinking of that initially, but a number of people started coming to her and saying she really needed to consider this,” Cullen said.
Cullen, who worked for Sonny Bono as well, also praised the residents of the South Shore for their response to the congressman’s death.
“The community could not have been more supportive, from top to bottom,” Cullen said.
By Tim Traeger
This column was originally published on Jan. 12, 1998.
With all the salutations of “Happy New Year” ringing throughout our town recently, this last week has been far from happy for me.
I was on the desk last Monday night. Our night news editor was somewhere in Cabo San Lucas. It was around 8:15 when I got a call from Zan Barker, a part-time photographer for the Tribune.
He said, “Did you hear that Sonny Bono died tonight at Heavenly?”
I was shocked, to say the least, so I asked Zan to find out as much as he could and see if any of his unofficial sources would go on the record to confirm that the man I grew up watching on the “Sonny & Cher” show ” now a U.S. congressman ” had passed.
That call from Zan began me on a chase to find out if it was indeed true. Bono was an international figure, and this, unfortunately, was huge news.
Coaxing my poor old truck to start, we wound our way up to Boulder Lodge on the Nevada side of Heavenly. It was dark; just a few Douglas County Sheriff’s cars flanked the “command center” that had been set up. In a surreal exercise in practicing journalism, I made my way up the stairs to be met by Sgt. Paul Howell. He, doing his best to maintain the integrity of the scene, said, “We have no comment at this time,” referring me to another sergeant in Minden for official word. I had hit the proverbial wall, but the fact that two high-ranking Heavenly officials were in the command center told me that this was not another routine search for an ordinary missing skier, if there ever is such a thing.
I returned to the paper and made at least a dozen more calls. Everyone was tight-lipped, and the apprehensiveness of those I contacted gave me a gut-wrenching feeling that Sonny had died in a skiing accident here.
So three hours before official confirmation was released by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, we were the first to break the story. Exciting, yes. A tragedy for our country and state, yes.
The next day was spent largely fielding phone calls from “journalists” spanning the globe. TV shows, radio shows, magazines, other newspapers ” they all wanted to know more, because they felt there was more to know. They even wanted me to go on “Larry King Live” that night on CNN.
For someone who thinks it’s big news that the city council is deciding whether to increase snow-removal efforts, the whole media circus was a bit intimidating. And surely a bit sickening.
Here we had lost an international figure who died doing what he loved to do. The message of the tragedy seemed lost in the frenzy caused by all that “news” gathering.
“Was he drinking?” “Was he skiing out of bounds?” “Was he wearing a helmet?” “Did Sonny make an illicit amount of money from his political career?” And other inane questions, too many to note.
My heart extends to those who knew and loved the congressman. I wish I could have met him. He always seemed like he had a gleam in his eye and a spring in his step.
The experience made me grow as a human being, even though I feel a little ashamed for drawing my five minutes of fame at the expense of a great man who died practicing a great sport.
Will the state of shock journalism ever change? Will we ever be able to see the message, feel the sorrow, without tripping over ourselves to get the story first?
I doubt it. Add that fact to this week’s tragedies.
— Tim Traeger was managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune in 1998.
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