A spectacle of horror, captured vividly by TV

Competent anchors, riveting images and a few rough spots


Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 12, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A bit past noon yesterday, a Syracuse University professor on an Associated Press program on WEAA-FM marveled bitterly about the spectacle pulled off yesterday by the unknown terrorists.

The first hijacked plane striking the World Trade Center, she said, did so to capture the attention of the media in the media capital of the world. Video cameras then were unwittingly in place to capture the second savage crash.

From Manhattan, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the day was filled with vivid images of violence. And the networks, cable news channels and local stations provided blanket coverage.

ABC News' Peter Jennings and new CNN hire Aaron Brown steered their broadcasts ably through a wrenching time. After the second tower collapsed, a shaken Jennings said: "Wherever you are in the United States or the world today, the landscape of New York City has just changed."

CNN proved the mettle of its international coverage with exclusive footage from a videophone last night of explosions in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. The source of the blasts was not known.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell provided a tough-minded assessment: "This is obviously the largest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor."

Generally, the television news showed restraint; there were few estimates of casualties in New York until the afternoon. Later, the gloves came off. By evening, Fox News Channel and NBC were carrying deeply unsettling pictures of a man plummeting dozens of floors from one of the towers.

President Bush addressed the nation last night from the Oval Office, delivering a stern message to terrorists abroad and comfort to his constituents at home.

Bush sighed deeply before starting his speech, setting a much more resolute tone than his reference earlier in the day to the "folks" responsible for the attacks.

Throughout the day, the networks had to correct themselves - but that goes with the territory in reporting breaking news.

CBS interviewed Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born Johns Hopkins University scholar who studies Arab and Muslim culture and politics. It was a smart move on a day when many jumped to indict suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. His picture was shown repeatedly yesterday morning on several networks. The networks could have better explained the basis of such references.

All in all, the grown-ups in broadcast journalism proved themselves again yesterday.

There were less glorious moments, however.

During the raw minutes after the crashes, a callow reporter for the Fox News Channel stopped someone outside the World Trade Center. The man, who appeared to be a safety official, was confronted with the stereotypical TV question: "How are you doing?"

"How does it look like I'm doing?" the man snapped, as he attempted to return to his frantic conversation via walkie-talkie. When the reporter persisted, the official said sharply: "We've got people in there. We've got to go - we've got to get them out."

Television had to rely on reports from correspondents on telephones, as camera shots from the ground initially were hard to come by. Some cable stations yielded to news reports from sister channels - ESPN showed ABC News, MTV showed CBS - while stations such as QVC shopping channel and the Food Network suspended programming.

Viewers often were asked to absorb streams of information - video, voices and captions - about different aspects of the day. It was at once bewildering and informative. That was scrambled further by local stations, which superimposed their own captions.

Several Baltimore journalists headed to Washington to report from the Pentagon, which made sense, given the close ties many Marylanders have with government and military agencies.

News conferences with city and state officials were broadcast, information on school and office closings helpfully doled out - all in all, a worthwhile performance.

And yet, some folks just couldn't stop themselves. At Baltimore's WJZ-13, anchors didn't simply read public statements or bulletins from public figures, say, Cardinal William H. Keeler's statement of mourning. Instead, it was: "Eyewitness News has learned ... "

The words "Eyewitness News Live!" often appeared in giant letters on the station's broadcast, almost eclipsing the CBS footage. While other stations promoted themselves, too, none descended to quite such depths.

Although the footage of the planes striking the towers was almost too astonishing to be believed, CBS News carried a picture a bit later of a smaller scene that was perhaps even more telling. As the network's correspondents spoke, a camera showed people milling about several blocks from the base of the crippled second tower. As smoke and dust billowed, someone, presumably a cameraman, leaned over and wiped the lens.

And then people started racing frantically past the lens as ash enveloped the area. The camera tipped over, and, for a second or two, the network broadcast only blackness. It was a televised glimpse into the terror that must have been felt by thousands of Americans yesterday.

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