Culture > Television

A time for resolve

Television | Media emphasized our sorrow, but could have focused on our grit

Issue: "The Road to Damascus," Sept. 21, 2002

The first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, Dec. 7, 1942, as The Washington Times recounts, found a nation not re-mourning its dead and trying to gain a deeper understanding of Shintoism, but purchasing war bonds and rallying against the enemy.

By contrast, on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack, U.S. media recapitulated the nation's grief and mourning. Interviewers coaxed painfully sad memories from bereaved family members. The mood, for the most part, was elegiac, therapeutic (can we ever feel safe again?), even frightened (what might the terrorists do next?).

Nevertheless, the replays of the attack were important for a nation with a short attention span. Some of the best material was just the networks showing their year-old tapes, showing the anchors-in a state of confusion and disbelief-announcing the news of one attack after another. That was riveting TV then, and it is riveting today.

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On the anniversary programming in prime-time, CBS performed far better than its competitors. ABC's Barbara Walters asked children of the victims whether they were ready for "closure" ("No!" the spunkier-than-Barbara kids exclaimed, along with their wish for Osama bin Laden dead). NBC's A Concert for America consisted mostly of angst-ridden pop stars, with a few empathetic movie stars. (A few good notes: an orchestra playing American music; Alan Jackson; a military gospel choir; the president showing up and saying a few words.) PBS replayed its documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, with doubt predominating.

But CBS led with a dramatic account of what the president was doing on 9/11, featuring exclusive interviews with George W. Bush, his aides, and even the pilot of Air Force One, who told of evading suspicious aircraft as he was protecting the chain of command by spiriting the president to a secret command center.

The network also re-ran 9-11, by two young Frenchmen, Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who were just trying to make a documentary about a rookie firefighter. As they tagged along on a routine call, their cameras caught both planes crashing into the towers, then followed the firefighters into the building. Their rolling cameras enabled viewers to see through the firefighters' eyes-and to hear with them the crashing of the bodies of the people who jumped.

Those cameramen were heroic too. Instead of watching from afar, these young journalists also went inside the buildings. When the dust obscured everything, they turned on their floodlights, helpfully pointing them where the firefighters needed. They were involved with these eloquent blue-collar guys, documenting their camaraderie, their passion to save people's lives, and their sacrificial heroism.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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