Reopening America's national wound

Is it catharsis or exploitation? Two programs revisit devastation of Sept. 11.

March 10, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Six months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we find ourselves this weekend in a second wave of television programs revisiting that trauma.

Friday night, the Discovery channel showed the premiere of New York Firefighters: The Brotherhood of September 11, a touching portrait of a firehouse in the South Bronx that lost eight members of its rescue team inside the towers.

Tonight at 9, CBS airs the premiere of its heavily promoted 9 / 11, a two-hour special featuring never-before-seen footage shot by French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet inside the World Trade Center as the first plane hit the first tower. With Robert De Niro as host and Nextel underwriting the program so that no commercials will be shown, 9 / 11-is getting the big-event, network treatment.

CBS' 9 / 11 has already generated considerable controversy with survivors of the attacks and family members of victims saying the last thing they want to see is the attack played out again on television. There have also been questions raised about the way the Naudet brothers' work was packaged by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, who brought them to CBS via the William Morris Agency.

Vanity Fair has an interview with the Naudet brothers in this month's issue, and two of its editors are listed as executive producers of tonight's program. The other executive producers are Susan Zirinsky, of CBS News, the Naudet brothers and James Hanlon, a New York City firefighter. That's a lot of executive producers, and you might want to remember the Vanity Fair-CBS-William Morris show business axis the next time you see a story in Vanity Fair celebrating a CBS executive like Leslie Moonves, the person to whom Carter brought the package.

But the larger question for us as viewers is why now? Why is this second wave of television programming starting to kick in, and is it speaking to some genuine need in the audience or merely seeking to exploit?

'The timing is important'

Zirinsky, a veteran news executive at CBS, took the question of timing head-on in a telephone press conference this week that also included the Naudet brothers and Betsy West, the CBS News executive who oversaw the project.

"The timing of the event, which has been a big issue, was [the result of] an evolution. The Naudets and Hanlon through Vanity Fair had come to CBS, and we felt the responsibility to get it ready [for air] as soon as we could. Which is why it's happening now," she said.

"In terms of what's the right timing for a show like this, I must say that I think this is the right time. We can't forget what drove this country to be at war, which we are in right now. The timing is important. It is really important to not forget what happened. Not that anyone will totally forget, but sometimes the rawness does fade," Zirinsky added.

What Zirinsky's explanation boils down to is that 9 / 11 is on tonight because that is as fast as CBS could get it on the air "with context and perspective." Like Discovery's Brotherhood of September, 9 / 11 is being positioned as a second draft of journalism, more in-depth and explanatory than the first wave of hard news coverage in September.

Both Zirinsky and West stressed context, as did the Naudet brothers, who said one of the reasons they agreed to make the special with CBS was that the network agreed to let them tell their story.

Some viewers who have followed coverage of the film, focusing on the "never-before-seen" angle, are going to be surprised by the central story that the Naudet brothers try to tell in 9 / 11.

"We started the production in June 2001, and the idea from the very beginning was to follow a young firefighter coming out from the firefighting academy during the nine months of his probationary time in a firehouse, [as he is] proving to the guys and especially to himself that he has what it takes to be a fireman," Gedeon Naudet said.

"The theme was to show how a young kid becomes a man in a very short period of time in a firehouse."

The film is broken into three acts, and the first is about life at the fire academy and the firehouse as the audience meets the young firefighter. It is 15 to 20 minutes long.

Disturbing sounds

Act Two, which is 55 minutes long, is what happened on Sept. 11. That's the part CBS has been hyping.

Jules Naudet said that when he entered One World Trade Center, he saw people on fire, the result of jet fuel that had poured down the elevator shafts and created a fireball in the lobby. But he didn't film them.

"I remember when I entered, I glanced to my right and saw people that were burning and decided right there that it was not something to show or to film. For the rest of the day, I never filmed anything graphic in that sense," he said.

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