New York, a beacon of diversity

Filmmaker Ric Burns says the 'meaning' of the city has changed 'permanently'

New York has been "an experiment to see if all the people of the world could live together in a single place," says documentary filmmaker Ric Burns in a recent interview.

The last four hours of his "New York: A Documentary Film" (PBS, Sunday and Monday, check local listings) begins with the stock market crash of 1929. It then takes viewers through the Great Depression, World War II, the construction of its magnificent skyline, and opposition to development by reformer Robert Moses.

These final four hours of Burns's 14-1/2 hour miniseries on the history and character of New York are a magnificent paean to the 400-year-old city. The segments are particularly moving now, since they explain what New York has suffered and how it has endured through the 20th century.

The city's strengths, Burns stresses, date back to the Dutch who settled on the Hudson - their entrepreneurial vigor and openness to change.

"New York is at the heart of the global culture.... It is a forest of symbols," he says. The film points out that 43 percent of the population of New York was born on foreign soil. Burns adds that 186 languages are spoken by children in the public school system.

"New York is the first world city," Burns says. "The battle lines were drawn Sept. 11 between those who wish to live in a world that includes everyone and those who do not appreciate or accommodate difference.

"Everyone has a place in New York - it is ultimately a beacon of diversity."

His film is not sentimental, nor does it whitewash New York's long history of ethnic strife. And yet, despite it all, it has worked as a city.

Since Sept. 11, however, certain illusions have had to be abandoned, he says.

"The meaning of the city was changed permanently. The illusion we held before Tuesday the 11th, that it would be possible to postpone answering the question 'Can all the peoples of the world live together?' has been shattered. It is not an idle question," he says.

"Another illusion that was shattered was that we could participate in global culture and not participate in the perils of a global culture," Mr. Burns continues. "One of the things that absolutely changed is that brash sense that it happens someplace else - 'Don't mess with us, we're New Yorkers.'

"We've had our hair mussed in the past, but nothing, not even the Great Depression, ever shook our sense of imperial strength before."

But one way in which the terrorist attack was spectacularly unsuccessful, he says, is that it so instantaneously increased New York's - and America's - sense of community.

Burns praises the media's coverage of the attack. Some critics have said that the actual event was nothing like what we saw on TV. But Burns says that the immensity of the attack was handled well.

"This is the media event of all time," he says. "The fact that the media is centered in New York is one of the many reasons New York was the target."

The media acted as a glue that kept the country together, Burns says.

"Never has the importance of the media been more evident. Whatever the opposite of a media frenzy is, this was it. The entire apparatus was mobilized to inform the international community."

TV blankets the terrorism story

Millions of viewers around the world stuck to their TV sets for days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. TV reporters gave every bit of news as it emerged (and sometimes reported rumors as if they were news) and reminded us again and again that the United States is one people under God, that we must refrain from racist reactions and respect Muslim Americans.

Unseemly programs (films that include plane crashes or mindless violence) were postponed or removed in deference to a grieving public.

The fall season of shows was pushed back. Excellent documentaries were hastily assembled or pulled forward to help us understand what is going on in the Middle East.

All the networks worked overtime, and each offered 90 hours of commercial-free reporting.

C-SPAN gave viewers access to the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, both of which outlined what America's friends and critics were saying in Canada and Europe (not all of it was positive). In some areas of the country, viewers had access to International Television News. MSNBC and CNN seemed to be everywhere and interviewing everyone.

Even cable TV, not normally involved with breaking news, rose to the occasion. A stunning documentary, "Behind the Terror: Understanding the Enemy," which aired last week, was assembled by the Discovery Channel, TLC, and BBC America. It explained who Osama bin Laden is and what he wants. It gave us a broader picture of the Taliban and its victims.

As the first few days unfolded, the networks shared their footage and generously credited newspaper writers with breaking stories.

The networks and several cable channels joined in an unprecedented fund-raiser, "America: Tribute to Heroes," for the victims of the disaster. And many have prayed together in televised services that embraced Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions.

We have been reminded to love one another: "diversity in unity," as one CNN reporter put it. Even an urbane cynic like David Letterman cried on the air and thanked police, firefighters, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for his courage, showing himself as a man with significant values.

And now, we are returning to regular programming that can seem awfully insipid. But so far, television has behaved rather well in the face of this crisis.

"The media event of all time," as Burns called it, tried to make sense of the scattered puzzle as fast and as clearly as it could. And for Burns, the story is not over. There's the new New York left to film.

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