Television served to bring us together

News: In anchors' calm reports, Americans could be assured that the country was shaken but not undone.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 12, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

What mattered during yesterday's television coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon wasn't the journalistic concerns of who was on the air first or who had the most impressive pictures or analysis.

What mattered was that network and cable television news was on the air period - that the familiar faces and voices that are there every day were on that screen when we turned on our television sets, talking us through what NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw called "one of the darkest days in America's history."

What we saw was television news functioning in that profound psychological and civic space to which it first ascended in 1963 in the minutes, hours and days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As television brought us soul-shaking pictures of the very symbol of our economic might reduced to rubble and our military headquarters in flames, the voices and faces accompanying those pictures served to reassure us that the republic still stood.

With President George W. Bush out of Washington and appearing only on videotape until he addressed the nation last night, we couldn't help but feel a certain psychic shakiness and concern about the continuity of government.

But the collective insecurity was eased in the immediate wake of the attacks by the likes of Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings. They were on-camera by 10 a.m. yesterday, taking over or teaming up with such morning show anchors as NBC's Katie Couric and Matt Lauer who were there when the first plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

It didn't matter that there were stretches where the anchors had little new information or that, in the early going, they sometimes contradicted one another on the facts. What counted was that they were in New York near the site of the worst carnage, hunkered down and trying to help us make sense of it.

We had in our collective memory the image of Pearl Harbor, of course, to use as a guide in trying to understand what we were seeing in video replay over and over on the screen yesterday: a plane crashing into the back side of one tower, followed by a giant fireball of an explosion. And the memory of Pearl Harbor was invoked often throughout the day, with Rather even repeating the famous "day of infamy" language of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But that was long ago for many Americans, and far away compared to New York and Washington. The images we saw yesterday were more the stuff of made-for-TV disaster movies and nuclear holocaust films like Independence Day. In fact, terrorists trying to crash hijacked jets into the World Trade Center served as the central story line of several network dramas the last few seasons.

And, so, when we first saw the images, they didn't truly register as being a horrible new part of our reality. Partly, they were so mind-blowing the tendency was to stare and stare rather than think about what we were seeing. Another reason surely involves the mind's tendency to deny the reality of things so traumatic.

The collapse of the first tower of the World Trade Center looked like an atomic bomb imploding backward, with the plume billowing toward the ground instead of exploding skyward. The street level videotape of the concrete, dust and debris flying through the streets like a giant cloud of death was straight out of the ABC miniseries, The Day After.

The network anchors recognized the surreal quality of the images. As Rather put it, "If you didn't know better, you'd say it must be from a horror movie. It's horrible. It isn't a movie."

And, then, once such statements and the constant repetition of the images took us past denial, television news helped us to define the new national reality that began yesterday.

"Those who think events in far off places have no effect on us, this is an answer," Brokaw said. "America has been changed by this."

James Kallston, the former FBI director in New York City, was brought on as an expert to reinforce that message: "It's a day 50 years from now our children will be taught about - if we are still teaching them history - a day we went to war on American soil with terrorism."

This isn't television news as journalism. For better or worse, this is television news as guide to the national psyche.

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