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TV Notes: 9/11 impact on media falls short of 'lasting'

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For many journalists, Sept. 11 brought the immediate sense that they were covering the most important story of their lives and that the media landscape had changed forever.

Well, maybe everything HASN'T changed.

There are differences, to be sure: Cable news has a larger audience and Americans are more interested in international news. But for the most part, experts say, the habits of news consumers and providers aren't markedly different a year later.

"We imbued this whole story with perhaps more meaning than it ultimately had," said Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York magazine. "That's not to say it wasn't an event of overwhelming devastation. It just might not mean all that we thought it would mean."

Wolff remembers talking shortly after Sept. 11 with a charged-up newsmagazine editor who predicted it would be a long time before the magazines had cover stories on health or lifestyle issues.

It happened sooner than expected. Life moved on. Time magazine cover subjects the past month included Bruce Springsteen and the environment.

On television, a decades-long decline in network evening news viewership has stopped, and ratings have stayed up at cable news networks Fox News Channel and CNN.

The biggest change is the appetite for international news, with the war on terrorism and the Middle East unrest. The Pew center found that the number of people who say they closely follow international stories increased from 14 percent in 2000 to 21 percent this year.

That forced a major change in priorities for many news organizations, particularly in television, that had de-emphasized international news throughout the 1990s.

"It has renewed our commitment to covering news around the world because people understand better how much events overseas really matter," said Walter Isaacson, chairman of CNN, which has built the most extensive international news operation among U.S. television networks.

In the past, big stories helped create news outlets or cement reputations. ABC's "Nightline" was born as a nightly special report during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, and the Persian Gulf War arguably ushered CNN into television's major leagues.

While Sept. 11 turned Geraldo Rivera from a talk-show host into a war reporter and helped bring Phil Donahue out of retirement, it hasn't been the same career maker.

CNN's viewership this year is up 65 percent over the same period in 2001. The network might be celebrating more loudly if Fox News Channel hadn't gone up 128 percent during the same time to overtake them.

At the same time, viewership has dropped markedly at CNBC, suggesting some people have grown weary watching their investments lose money and turned to news instead.

Sept. 11 was hardly a turning point for TV warhorses such as Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, but their role in soothing and informing the nation that week did bring a renewed appreciation for anchors who had been taken for granted.

A year later, evening news viewership is up for all three of their broadcasts -- most markedly at Jennings' ABC, an impressive achievement considering the network's complete collapse in prime-time.

The attacks may have kept Brokaw in his job longer. He took most of the summer of 2001 off and was contemplating retirement; now he's decided to stay on as anchor through the end of 2004.

Ultimately, it may have been too much to expect that Sept. 11 would bring about massive changes in the media.

"The problem with the 'everything has changed' notion is that we literally thought that this was something of an ongoing event," Wolff said. "That was the fear -- that we were living in a world of terrorist attacks.

"It took a while for people to come to the conclusion, sort of sheepishly, that it's not what happened."

(David Bauder, Associated Press)

The dreaded crawl

The crawl gives Jane Pauley a headache.

The endless stream of news headlines that runs at the bottom of the screen on cable news networks -- called a crawl in TV lingo -- is the most visible legacy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on TV. Networks started using it that day and haven't stopped.

Pauley, the "Dateline NBC" host, said it gets on her nerves. "The experience of watching television news sometimes is overload," she said at a forum Monday sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "You can't relax. In newspapers, at least the stories stay put on the page."

CNN's Aaron Brown winced upon hearing Pauley's comments and tried to explain, if not defend, the crawl.

Focus groups of television viewers seem to like it, he said. He's tried to bring some sensitivity to the process, imploring producers, for example, not to run entertainment headlines when CNN is covering a funeral.

"Somehow we are in a time when somebody paid a ton of money for a graphics machine and feel they have to amortize it forever," he said. "With luck, this too shall pass."

(Associated Press)

Few tough questions?

Most journalists haven't measured up in the year since the terrorist attacks, shying away from asking the nation's leaders tough questions, Dan Rather said.

"We haven't lived up to our responsibility, to our duty," the CBS anchorman said at a forum sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "Our duty is to be there every day and knock on the door and say, 'what's going on in there?' "

The public anger over the attacks and surge in patriotism make many journalists reluctant to take on this traditional role, he said.

Rather didn't criticize any news organization specifically and didn't exempt himself and CBS News from his comments.

"I think it's unpatriotic not to do it," he said. "The idea that patriotism is wearing a flag in your lapel and never saying anything bad about whomever is in power ... is not consistent with the American character."


Mayor on cable

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy will be among the leaders of several American cities interviewed today on Wisdom Television, Channel 138 on AT&T Broadband's digital tier.

The Murphy interview is expected to air at 3:15 p.m.

(Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor)

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