I was going to sit down last night and compose some thoughts about the events that overtook America on Tuesday, but I became entranced just sitting and watching it all unfold on television.
Make no mistake about it, this was a television event.
I love the medium of radio, which I have worked in for over two decades, and which can bring people together in a way that TV, newspapers, magazines, and the internet never can. But it does that best on the day after. Radio can rally the American spirit, get people out to blood drives, allow us to exercise our free speech rights in two-way communication and discussion.
Yet it is TV that bound us all together on Tuesday. This was a story you had to SEE to believe.
You had to SEE the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.
You had to SEE a slice taken out of the Pentagon as if it were a five-sided apple pie.
You had to SEE the Twin Towers collapsing into rubble.
TV became our communal viewmaster, just as it did for the Columbine massacre, the Challenger explosion, the LA riots, the OJ Bronco chase. Even a thousand words did not match these pictures. In fact, no words seemed to match.
There were at least six different views shown of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center –- all taken by amateurs with home video cameras who just happened to be rolling tape at the time. How many people do you know walking around with audio recorders, randomly catching major moments on tape and handing them over to broadcasters?
On the day after, there aren’t enough words to express everything we’re feeling. Nonetheless, I have more than a few that I have to get off my chest.
Looking at the rubble, the ash, the demolished neighborhood, I thought, “Welcome to the third world.” When I heard that nearby hospitals were treating over 1,500 people with severe burns all over their bodies, I thought, “Welcome to Hiroshima.”
My earliest TV memory was the national trauma of the assassination of JFK. I was only 5 years old, but I sat in the living room with my parents watching a black and white television with flickering images of Oswald, Ruby, the rider-less horse, the funeral procession, the mourning.
Now my daughter is 7 years old, and when she came home from school on Tuesday afternoon, she wanted to watch the news coverage of this disaster. She’s curious, full of questions, a little bit afraid, but mostly interested in what she can tell is obviously something big. This will be the milepost for her early life, as the death of a President was for my generation.
She’ll remember sitting with us as we flicked from channel to channel, looking for more information and comparing the coverage, which was everywhere. CBS simulcast Dan Rather (subdued yet frantic, which only Dan can pull off) on MTV, VH-1,
and Country Music Television. NBC ran the Brokaw/Couric/Lauer trifecta plus separate fronts on MSNBC and CNBC. CNN was on every AOL/Time Warner channel. ESPN ran the ABC crew and Fox Sports Net simulcast Fox News Channel. Most of the shopping channels quit selling cubic zirconia for the day, while Barry Diller’s Home
Shopping Channel picked up the Canadian feed of his co-owned NewsWorld.
You know it’s an important story when it gets a title — “America Under Attack!” (or, in Spanish, “Estados Unidos Bajo Ataque!”). All the networks were soon crowding the screen with titles, logos, graphics, and news tickers. How many of the executives who chose to put those up on screen were among those who criticized the new look of CNN Headline News for doing exactly the same thing?
Thanks to digital cable, we watched news feeds from Spanish-language Univision (actually understanding some of it, to our gringo surprise) and the BBC (alone in giving some perspective to the story by providing background every once in awhile), contrasting their different approaches with the near-hysterical can’t-catch-your-breath reportage of the various US networks.
Was there anything more sickening than seeing people hanging out of the World Trade Center’s windows 90 stories above the ground, desperate for help yet unreachable? I couldn’t help thinking that if it were me, and the smoke and flames were making death a certainty inside, I’d probably do a header into the pavement, too.
Fox was the only net that stepped over the line when they aired footage of someone on a high floor jumping to their death, the camera following the doomed person all the way down to the ground. There’s absolutely no reason to put that footage on the air. None. Ever. What’s next, doing a split screen with footage of Susan Flannery, as Robert Wagner’s lover, doing the death dive through the window of “The Towering Inferno”?
The field reporting, especially on the cable nets, was outstanding. Fox’s Rick Leventhal and MSNBC’s Rehema Ellis and Ashleigh Banfield showed crisis courage we haven’t seen since Peter Arnett.
Speaking of Arnett, CNN’s Nic Robertson must have thought he’d lay claim to his title by doing live reports from Kabul, Afghanistan, of apparent US attacks on the city. Too bad they turned out to be something else entirely. But how about that remote broadcast via videophone?
That was the best use of technology for the day, until we heard that some of the survivors in the Trade Center rubble were using their cell phones to call for help and contact family members. Good thing they didn’t get rid of those cell phones when New York banned them in cars.
In St. Louis, one reporter was doing a live shot from the terminal at Lambert Airport long after it had been closed and all flights canceled. She said authorities had found accommodations for all travelers, although some people had decided to “tough it out” in the terminal for the night.
Who are these people who passed on a hotel room and chose a completely uncomfortable plastic airport chair for the night? Who stayed at the terminal all night keeping an eye on them? Who would call that “toughing it out” compared with what was going on in New York and Washington? That’s as bad as the other reporter I heard calling the nearly-empty terminal “a wasteland.” Come on, choose your words more wisely.
Somewhere in Hollywood, Jerry Bruckheimer is thinking about who will star in the inevitable big-screen exploitation of this tragedy. And Aaron Sorkin just got the inspiration for the “West Wing” finale.
Remember when video of a demolition crew imploding a building was cool to watch? Never again.