A.M. hosts not up to hard news task

Coverage: Yesterday, ABC appeared to be out in front of other networks - and the FBI - in tracking down whodunit.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 13, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

On Day 1 of terrorist attack coverage, television news seemed to understand so well its larger cultural role as a reassuring presence. But it was a different story on Day 2 as the networks and cable channels struggled to find the right tone and story lines worthy of nonstop coverage.

Part of the problem was simply one of stamina. After putting in more than 12 hours on the air Tuesday, you couldn't expect to see Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings - the trio most responsible for talking us through Day 1 of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington - on the air first thing Wednesday. CBS suffered most in this regard, with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson, the regular hosts of the network's last-place morning show, at the anchor desk until noon.

Morning shows by definition are much more focused on personal stories and self-help than are evening newscasts and special reports. And, so, it wasn't surprising to find lots of interviews with relatives of victims and various experts offering advice on coping.

ABC, NBC, CBS and MSNBC all could be faulted for talking to witnesses, victims or relatives who still were in shock. Especially troubling was an interview both NBC and CBS did with a California couple whose son went down with the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. The mother's smile throughout the CBS interview made it clear that she had not processed her son's death. Putting her on the air felt exploitative.

But most inappropriate and annoying was Clayson constantly telling viewers about her feelings and experiences in connection with Tuesday's events - as if they mattered. Such self-absorption usually is left behind when local anchors move up to network or cable channels.

"You talk about that post-traumatic stress that so many feel, and I, for one, couldn't get so many images out of my mind last night, as I tried to sleep," Clayson told psychologist Robert Butterworth, during an interview.

Later, as Gumbel was recounting the horror of long lines at shops in Manhattan Tuesday, Clayson chimed in with, "I actually felt when I left this building ... well, I felt vulnerable. I really did."

Gumbel's response to several similar statements from his co-anchor was, "Scary, very scary."

While Gumbel and Clayson were sharing their feelings, ABC News had Peter Jennings on the air by 10 a.m. and was well on its way to finding one of the most compelling narratives of the day: the whodunit crime story.

ABC News' investigative unit was the first to pick up a trail that may have been left by five of the terrorists who hijacked planes out of Boston's Logan Airport. Things improved dramatically at NBC and CBS by 1 p.m. when Brokaw, Rather and Ed Bradley settled in. But ABC had the jump on everyone.

By mid-afternoon, all the networks and cable channels were chasing the crime story with reports of the suicide pilots possibly being trained in Florida, and pictures of the FBI and a police SWAT unit charging into the Westin Hotel in Boston. The pictures were dramatic, but no one seemed quite sure what they meant.

Except for ABC, the desire on the part of news organizations to find a suspect at which to point their cameras seemed to be jumping the gun ahead of any facts they had actually managed to gather by mid-afternoon.

Television news spent much of the rest of the day chasing press conferences or briefings as the administration sent the attorney general, the director of the FBI, the secretary of state and the president's press secretary before the cameras in an obvious attempt to gain control of the story and define how it would be covered. For instance, the White House's claim that President Bush and Air Force One might have been targeted by the terrorists was sure to dominate at least one news cycle.

The White House usually wins such battles. But yesterday, on the tube at least, it looked as though the FBI was playing catch-up with ABC News.

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