LOS ANGELES — Television coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath has been deeply troubling. While it is appropriate that major networks have preempted commercials, these same TV news operations resorted to entertainment conventions that exploit the dramatic elements of the tragedy.
The first day of coverage was TV news at its best: on-the-fly, unchoreographed reporting that echoed Edward R. Murrow's radio dispatches from London during World War II. Caught off-guard with a breaking story of unprecedented gravity, reporters and anchors rose to the occasion.
In the confusion of Day 1, the networks got some facts wrong, but the coverage seemed real, the reporting thorough and unfiltered. Even the frequent repetition of videos of the attacks and footage shot from different angles was beyond reproach. After all, many people were tuning in for the first time throughout the day. Hard as it was to watch the videos, those additional angles were important to see.
But by the end of Day 2, networks were setting slow-motion, digitally altered images of the attacks to music. FOX News Channel uses an image of the North Tower crumbling as a background frame to its coverage. The picture is tinted blue and enhanced to appear grainy. Set to music, it conjures the type of rudimentary surveillance video one might see on a reality show or a tabloid exposé.
Why do they create and use this footage? For the same reason most TV news programs repeatedly aired the same pictures of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit. Voyeurism entertains. It's enough that TV has replayed the tragedies countless times since the event. While these endless replays may have been important the first day, are they still newsworthy days later? Or are they exploitative?
Virtually all the networks have allowed the artistic potential of post-production effects to erode their journalistic credibility. NBC News, for example, now invites viewers to relive the major moments of last week set to a moving soundtrack - like a sports recap. Other networks have beautifully prepared montages that look and feel like a war film or one of those tribute compilations of clips so popular at awards ceremonies. Barely a week into the aftermath, one does not have to look hard to see the type of jump-cut editing that alters the angles and pace of video footage. Apparently, the chaos of the actual events is not enough for Americans used to manufactured frenzy on MTV and "The Blair Witch Project."
Networks were also quick to emblazon dramatic captions defining their coverage. CNN, FOX, NBC, CBS, and ABC all came out with such banal titles as "America's New War" and "America on Alert." These "titles" have little news value. Experts appearing on CNN's "America's New War" coverage may find it more difficult to argue whether the US is at war, whether the war is "new," and whether we should even go to war with "war" proclamations on screen. Why attach a catch phrase to the news, when it might limit debate? Do networks really need hyperbole and platitudes to differentiate nearly identical coverage, as if they were hawking competing brands of potato chips?
It is a challenge for journalism, in an age of easy special effects, to make distinctions between news and entertainment. TV journalism has failed to meet this challenge. This is not the time for networks to make TV news entertaining. It is not the Chandra mystery, the O.J. Simpson trial, or even the Clinton impeachment. Quite possibly, the future of the nation is at stake. Get rid of the music, the digitally bleached, slow-motion images, and endless replays. Get rid of the jingoistic slogans. Anything less is a disservice to those who died last week, and to all of us.
Michael M. Epstein is a lawyer, media scholar, and professor at Southwestern Law School, and associate director of the National Entertainment and Media Law Institute.