Late-night gauges U.S. feelings

TV: Letterman shows his frustration, fear and grief, and Maher displays his anger.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 19, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Even by the standards of the whirlwind of staggering television images that we have witnessed the last week, it was an exceptional moment: a venerable network anchorman and a top late-night host silently holding hands across a talk show desk as the anchorman struggled to regain his composure in talking about terrorist attacks on New York.

That was the scene on Monday night's Late Show With David Letterman, as the CBS late-night star talked with his first guest, CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Late-night talk-show television has long been a fairly reliable gauge of what Middle America is feeling. And, if the last two nights of late-night television are any indication, we are still in the grip of an emotional overload of sadness, confusion and grief, while looking for an acceptable way to express those feelings.

Rather, who has a history of wearing his emotions on his sleeve, came onstage in a subdued mood after a highly emotional opening statement by Letterman in which he acknowledged being so confused by last week's events that he didn't trust his instincts about whether he should come back on the air after more than a week of reruns.

But Rather quickly became choked up with emotion several times during his conversation with Letterman.

While he could usually compose himself with just a pause, Rather found it impossible to continue while answering a question about America's resolve.

"We're seen as having great courage, a great military, but the world's view of us in many places with many people is that we just don't have the stomach to stick anything out," Rather began.

"And, you might say, `Well, we were great during World War II. Yeah, but this is a new generation and they're all spoiled.' So, we're really being put to the test. But I'll tell you this: If they could go down to ground zero in lower Manhattan, and see those firemen ..."

And that's when Rather started to cry, grabbed Letterman's hand and asked that they take a commercial break. He was overcome again a few minutes later while reciting lyrics from America the Beautiful.

As strange as that might sound in print, I welcomed it as a viewer, especially in the cathartic emotional space Letterman so brilliantly crafted Monday night with his opening remarks and empathetic response to Rather.

In the emotionally overwrought media climate of the last week, which also included unbridled emotional responses on-air from ABC's Peter Jennings at his anchor desk, it certainly seemed appropriate. Maybe, as we get some distance from the uncharted media landscape that we are all traveling these days, it will look different.

But Rather, America's most tenured anchorman, certainly bumped up against a journalistic line - if not actually crossing it - when he repeated what he acknowledged were unconfirmed reports of terrorists across the Hudson River in New Jersey, standing on their rooftops and cheering as the World Trade Center fell.

He prefaced the allegation by saying, "There's one report, [and] this has not been confirmed. [But] there are several reliable reports that there was a cell - one of these [terrorist] cells across the Hudson River. And I emphasize I don't know this for a fact, but there are several witnesses who say this ..."

Unnamed "witnesses" and hearsay are never acceptable from a journalist even in the non-journalistic space of late-night television.

Over on ABC's Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher on Monday night, the tone was more abrasive, with Maher insisting in his remarks that last week's events shouldn't preclude us from criticizing the Bush administration.

"So, the idea that this beef we have with the Muslims could go nuclear, that is on my mind right now. And I do not relinquish, nor should any of you, the right to criticize even as we support our government," Maher said in his opening remarks.

"This is still a democracy, and they are still politicians, so we need to let our government know we cannot afford a lot of things that we used to be able to afford, like a missile shield that will never work for an enemy that doesn't exist ..."

Despite an empty chair on the set in memory of Barbara Olson, a frequent guest who was killed last week in one of the hijacked planes, Politically Incorrect had little emotional resonance. In terms of his remarks, Maher seemed to be defending the premise of the show rather than speaking to and for the audience as Letterman did.

Letterman's gentle teasing of Regis Philbin as The Late Show closed Monday night suggested that we will at some future date surely laugh again at the late-night comic as he makes fun of our popular culture and its celebrities.

But, given what we've seen the first two nights of the return of late-night talk television, it seems we are still many nights away from the joy of unself-conscious laughter.

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