TV sings to our better angels

Networks, especially ABC, kept their focus on spiritual healing and national unity in the aftermath of tragedy.


September 16, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television news just ended a remarkable week in which it assumed a civic and psychic role that went beyond merely covering the aftermath of terrorist attacks.

It was a week that resonated all the way back to 1963, when the medium first ascended to an elevated cultural realm of serving as a force of continuity and reassurance following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Friday, it played the role of an electronic house of worship to which we could all go and vicariously participate in the rites and rituals of a multi-denominational national religion. Watching television Friday was yet another stage in the shared journey of acceptance and grieving that many of us started on Tuesday in front of our sets. It is a journey not yet ended, and no one has served as a better guide so far than ABC News.

"This is intended to be a day of national mourning and prayer, and to that end we'll do what we can in the next few hours to once again bind the country together using television," ABC anchorman Peter Jennings said as he took over the anchor desk Friday morning. "It is a wonderful instrument on occasions like this to let us all participate."

ABC held that focus, moving to an excellent pre-taped report on memorial services, television, religion and shared remembrance from correspondent Bill Blakemore. It was the perfect prelude to the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral, which all the broadcast networks and cable channels covered.

Tapping great emotion

The multiple roles that television finds itself playing during such times of national trauma were in heightened relief just prior to the noon start of the service on CNN.

The cable channel used a split screen to carry a live videophone report from Kabul, Afghanistan, by Nic Robertson on a speech from a spiritual leader of the Taliban, while the other half of the CNN screen showed members of Congress entering the National Cathedral. Services at the cathedral quickly took full control of the screen, with cameras focusing on such familiar and honored members of our national political and religious life as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and the Rev. Billy Graham.

It's hard to imagine anyone watching the ceremony at the cathedral without feeling great emotion. From the Army Band playing God Bless America to Denyce Graves singing America The Beautiful, there were several powerful musical moments culminating in the finale, a rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was sung to a drum beat that had the unmistakable sound of soldiers marching off to war.

The emotional and inspirational tone was heightened by photography that focused on the spires of the cathedral shooting from the ground up toward the sky. Inside the cathedral, it was all stained glass and elegant rafters as the cameras shot down on the national congregation.

Joined to the soaring and pristine beauty of Graves' voice, such moments were in direct contrast to grimy, grinding, gray and dirty images of the twisted remains of the World Trade Center, which President George W. Bush would visit later in the day.

This was television reminding us of our better angels and highest national aspirations, in contrast to the horrible aftermath of the terrorist attacks in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon -- at which the network cameras and so our gaze had been focused since Tuesday.

Symbols and images

Like Jennings, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw understands television's larger role. When NBC finally managed to get close-up pictures of Bush greeting rescue workers at ground zero in New York, Brokaw cut off Tim Russert, who had been chatting away a mile a minute about the scene we were seeing.

"Tim, we just want to look at the pictures," Brokaw said.

He was right. It was a day for the symbols and images of what Franklin D. Roosevelt called "the warm courage of national unity" -- not politics -- as the workers in hard hats surrounding Bush chanted, "USA, USA," and reached out to feel his touch.

Television has by and large listened to its better angels this week. The networks stayed with wall-to-wall news coverage throughout the week, even when viewing levels dropped considerably from Tuesday to Wednesday. Generally, it was enlightened coverage, consisting of words and pictures that were both journalism and culture.

The new fall lineups of entertainment shows, the greatest single investment made by the networks, were postponed in deference to the tragic real-life events, leaving advertising and promotion campaigns in shambles.

Given recent disturbing trends toward less hard news and more silly "reality" programs like "Fear Factor" and "Big Brother," some of us wondered if the networks were about to totally abandon any sense of public service to the bottom line.

The answer we got this week was a hopeful one.

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