How will TV handle Sept. 11?
Anniversary coverage will include documentaries, profiles, live events
PASADENA, CALIF. — Television was the first stop for most of the nation on Sept. 11. A transfixed and traumatized audience tuned in almost nonstop to learn about the attacks and the victims.
But as the first anniversary of that day approaches, many wonder how TV will handle a tragedy that has already burned itself into our national consciousness as perhaps nothing has since World War II.
"Unfortunately, restraint is not exactly the cornerstone of the news business," says NBC anchor Katie Couric, whose "Today Show" coverage will run six hours that day. But, she says, people don't have to watch it. Because Sept. 11 was one of the most tragic events in US history, she adds, "to focus a lot of attention, particularly on that day, is appropriate."
Nearly every outlet on the air from the seven broadcast networks to the hundreds of cable and satellite channels will dedicate a significant amount of programming to Sept. 11.
Not surprisingly, the big four broadcast networks plan nearly wall-to-wall live coverage of national commemoration events, interspersed with documentaries and packaged reports.
In a small irony, networks are largely free of the need to fight for ratings, because most advertisers have opted not to buy time on the anniversary, afraid to give the appearance of cashing in on a tragedy.
Even sports and entertainment cable channels, such as HBO and ESPN, have special programs scheduled. Among them: a profile of the four men who tried to stop the hijackers on Flight 93 and the rebuilding of the New York Fire Department's football team.
Many news directors are looking inward for guidance. "This is a heart-rending day, I think, for all of us," says Teya Ryan, executive vice president and general manager of CNN. "You'll find that our programming will represent the full range of emotions and news of that day."
On that station, anchors Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn will host 12 hours of "America Remembers," a format that looks at the day through the eyes of those who covered it. CNN will also provide live coverage of commemoration events across the country, as well as prepared reports.
Veteran foreign correspondents Christiane Amanpour and Nic Roberts will file investigative reports from Afghanistan and the surrounding region.
"[They] are going to be pure enterprising journalism that gets to the core of what I want to know a year later and, I think, what our viewers want to know a year later," says Walter Isaacson, chairman and CEO of CNN News Group.
While many people have voiced concerns that the coverage will replay the most traumatic pictures over and over, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw says the network has consulted therapists on the proper tone to set.
Though coverage will be continuous, the network is "not going to just go back and try to hit the emotion button all day long...," Brokaw says. "It's not the journalistically responsible thing for us to do."
Veteran newsman Walter Cronkite acknowledges the temptation to go too far, but suggests that, given the gravity of the anniversary, most serious news coverage will be appropriate. "I think we'll have responsible people in charge of the coverage. I don't see us overdoing it," he says.
Many families of victims say the coverage is a double-edged sword.
Marian Fontana's firefighter husband died that day. She is now president of the Sept. 11 Widow and Victims Family Association. Many of the families she deals with feel oversaturated with TV images, she says.
"We really can't grieve or have any closure ourselves when it's constantly being shown on TV."
On the other hand, she says a part of her doesn't want people to forget and move on.
Mrs. Fontana's plans for that day don't involve talking to the media. Sept. 11 is her wedding anniversary.
"I've turned down all requests," she says. "I'll be sprinkling my husband's ashes that day."
When planning their Sept. 11 coverage, producers at PBS chose to tackle a difficult question: Where was God that day?
The special, "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," which airs Sept. 3 at 9 p.m., gathers a diverse group of religious and community leaders as well as the relatives and friends of the victims to share their views.
"At one level, [Sept. 11] does prove there is no God," says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "It does disprove the notion of some nice old man in the sky who makes everything good at the end of the day.... The question is, which God is worth believing in?"
The impetus for the program, part of the "Frontline" investigative series, came from reports that church attendance shot up following Sept. 11. Producer Helen Whitney says she took that as a point of departure for the deeper questions about faith.
"Who is this God? Where was He? The problem of evil, and this lust for the absolute that has been throughout all time, that creates religion," she says. "These religions have created great beauty and also have been very destructive as well."
The existence of evil is perhaps the most serious challenge to questions about God, says Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete of the New York Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic church.
"I wish to share with [people] the experience of a faith in a God who, for all absolute transcendence, is a companion in your struggle against evil."
The Roman Catholic leader says that after the attacks, religion for many people has shifted from a visit to a building to a daily activity. "It is more a question of method of walking, faith as a method of living every day."
Muslims such as Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA professor of Islamic law, says the events have not troubled his faith in God, but the hijackers' religious convictions that they were on a holy mission have troubled his heart.
"The real pain is that I know that there are so many of my fellow Muslims who have entirely bought into this immoral theological stance," he says.
Relatives of the victims express a range of spiritual responses, from the widow of firefighter David Fontana, who says that she has not forgiven God yet, to the father of a stock trader who was killed, who says that he has not questioned God at all.
"He had nothing to do with this. There were a lot more people who could have been killed. He was fighting evil that day like he does every day," says Bertie Heeran, himself a retired firefighter.
Ultimately, producer Whitney says, what interested her was the expansion of the national dialogue. "Out of the rubble and the pain and the terror has come the recognition that the language of economics, science, and politics no longer suffices for some," Whitney says. "The national conversation has suddenly become metaphysical as well."