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Analysis: TV's 9/11 coverage grapples with quiet solemnity, awkwardness

Thursday, September 12, 2002

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The awfulness of it -- planes crashing, buildings crumbling, smoke rising -- the horror, sadness and grief rushed back on television yesterday in an almost unavoidable blur.

Media companies faced a no-win scenario: Offer too much coverage and viewers will see it as exploitative; not enough, and Americans could view the media as callous, uncaring. Compounding matters, many of the memorials happened simultaneously, making complete coverage on any one channel impossible.

Networks and local stations did their best to offer respectful commemorations on the first anniversary of the day America was attacked. Watching every moment on every channel was impossible. Rather, these are observations from a day of channel surfing through the remembrances.

Morning

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made the rounds of the morning shows, starting with first-place "Today" on NBC and continuing on to No. 2 "Good Morning America" on ABC, No. 3 "The Early Show" on CBS and later Fox News Channel.

By 8 a.m., commercials began to disappear on stations with 9/11 coverage. The last to air were image spots that sold an idea rather than a product, including a commercial with images of New York for the New York Stock Exchange. Promos and commercials, including a patriotic image spot for Verizon, returned on some channels in mid-afternoon.

Silence, rare for a medium that abhors quiet, descended at 8:46 a.m., commemorating the time the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

Afterward, the names of victims were read at Ground Zero in New York. CBS showed photos of victims at the bottom of the screen and was the most observant of the two-hour-plus reading of names. Anchors on ABC and NBC talked over the reading of the list, commenting and conducting interviews. One interview on NBC was accompanied by shots of a fireball emanating from the World Trade Center, a rare sight during the memorials. These awkward transitions from coverage to commentary continued all morning.

CBS News had an unsubstantiated report that an al-Qaida Web site said Osama bin Laden died last December, but later retracted the report. Why rush to repeat something from a dubious source?

Local affiliates began to interrupt national coverage for the Flight 93 memorial service in Shanksville. Channel 11's sister station, PCNC, handled Shanksville coverage, while WPXI stayed with NBC. For those without cable, access to at least one network's national coverage was appreciated.

Pool cameras were used in Shanksville during the morning ceremony and President Bush's afternoon visit (the same images could usually be seen simultaneously on KDKA, PCNC and WTAE).

Afternoon

WTAE had an odd angle from a camera on the mast of its live truck, but the station caught the arrival and departure of President Bush and his helicopter armada in Shanksville, which WPXI and KDKA were not in position to show.

KDKA offered a traditional noon newscast, while other stations stayed with live coverage of Bush meeting Flight 93 families. No mike was allowed near Bush, which forced anchors to comment for an extended period (about two hours on WTAE). The talk filled time, but there are only so many rehashed anecdotes viewers need to hear. After Sally Wiggin talked about a man who brought his "Klingon hat" to the Flight 93 memorial, Channel 4 finally returned to ABC.

After the noon news, KDKA smartly returned to CBS's coverage, in which reporter Bob Schieffer acknowledged that the devastation in New York often overshadows the crash of Flight 93. But he said those who work in the Capitol, the possible target of the Flight 93 hijackers, are in debt to the passengers.

"Every hour I spend with my grandchildren is an hour given to me by the people on that plane," said Schieffer, who reports for CBS News from Capitol Hill. "I will never forget what they did that day."

A live PCNC special about helping children cope was well-intentioned, but beginning it with the image of a plane going into the World Trade Center ran counter to the program's emphasis, especially because most of the calls to the show came from children.

Evening

For viewers who had spent the day at work or away from a television, KDKA, WPXI and WTAE offered recaps on 4 p.m. newscasts, with anchors inside and outside the studio. With KDKA's Ken Rice and Jennifer Antkowiak, WTAE's Michelle Wright and Mike Clark, and WPXI's David Johnson all in Somerset County -- along with a fleet of reporters -- the stations started by focusing on the Flight 93 memorial and moved to the sad services farther from home.

Across the dial, the affiliates delivered a compressed version of the morning and early afternoon events. WPXI then provided a look at what had happened at local schools, where some students were clad in red, white and blue, while Rice chatted with a man who had spent hours walking to Shanksville, and Wright marveled at a boy who had literally jumped into President Bush's arms.

Rice continued his taped interview with former Gov. Ridge, now Homeland Security director, which started airing Tuesday. For Rice, the date 9/11 holds a sad significance, since his brother-in-law, Brian Dale, was on one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers.

The KDKA anchor challenged Ridge about the nation's inability to find Osama bin Laden, reporters sneaking box cutters onto planes and how a city of bridges and tunnels such as Pittsburgh can really be safe. It was a strong and clear counterpoint to the brief weather reports running on the other stations, but KDKA dribbled out the interview in a way that could test viewer patience.

KDKA later cut to CBS anchor Dan Rather, acknowledging that he knew people had jumped from the World Trade Center but that he couldn't bring himself to report it. It was rare "self-censorship," the newsman said.

KDKA picked up the CBS feed of the president's arrival in Lower Manhattan shortly before 5 p.m., while WTAE showed the images as co-anchors Wiggin and Scott Baker spoke about what viewers were seeing. WPXI slipped in another weather report and stories about West Nile virus and a missing teen before switching to Peggy Finnegan Downtown and David Johnson and Keith Jones in Somerset County.

WPXI was the last to provide the pictures of the president and Laura Bush at Ground Zero, and anchor Gina Redmond seemed at a disadvantage without another anchor at the studio desk. Wiggin and Baker, for instance, could share stories about where they were a year ago, while KDKA teamed usual partners Patrice King Brown and Stacy Smith.

Although all three stations focused on the same day's worth of news, their local reports outside the Flight 93 ceremony were surprisingly different.

Former Pittsburgh reporter Vince Gerasole, now working in Chicago, joined KDKA to present his interview with the operator who last spoke with Todd Beamer. Channel 11 dotted its coverage with remembrances from well-known residents, ranging from Sen. Rick Santorum to WDVE's Jimmy Krenn, and WTAE's Paul Van Osdol explored crash conspiracy theories.

KDKA's John Shumway talked about some Shanksville residents who are tired of providing directions or being constantly reminded of the loss of life in their midst and the souvenirs being sold. WPXI's Johnson, interestingly enough, said he had taken his sons to Somerset County, where his younger boy left this message: "Thank you, Flight 93, and God bless America."

WPXI seemed the first affiliate to devote more time to other news and slip in a few commercials or promos, while WTAE made brief note of the unexpected death of Johnny Unitas. After two hours, the coverage began to seem repetitive.

And just when you thought you had heard it all came Rice, setting aside his role as anchor and slipping into the one of brother-in-law. Sept. 11, he said, is about remembering not the buildings that fell down but the people lost. For his family, it was a day to remind everybody of what a wonderful person the 43-year-old Dale was.

Rice used the opportunity to thank friends and strangers who have embraced him in the past year and mixed a blend of home videos with an eloquent tribute to a husband, father and son shown playing with his children, vacationing with family and enjoying a life that no one knew would come to a premature and public end.

At 6:30, the stations switched back to the networks and, at 7 p.m., WPXI televised a memorial concert at Somerset Alliance Church and photos of the Flight 93 victims. A day that had resonated with tolling bells, rousing anthems and haunting silence drew to a close with more moving music and, later, a presidential address from Ellis Island.

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