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Has Media Went Overboard on Coverage of 9/11 Anniversary?

Aired September 14, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Wall to wall 9/11. The networks unleashed hours and hours and hours of anniversary coverage. Has it been too much? Too maudlin? Too talkative? Too violent? Or is television helping the country heal its wounds?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

It's finally over, we think. The 9/11 anniversary that brought around the clock media coverage and seemingly endless chatter on the airwaves.

There was a moment of silence on Wednesday morning, recalling the moment when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, but that was about the only quiet time for the networks, which trotted out their big-name anchors to headline the event. And while the ceremonies themselves, the laying of flowers, the readings of the names of the dead could be moving, many critics said that commentators blabbed way too much -- making this September 11 more about them than the victims, whose names were relegated to a crawl at the bottom of a screen.

There were town meetings and minute-by-minute reconstructions of what happened. Shots of the Twin Towers collapsing again. Interviews with widows and children and the usual cast of politicians from Rudy Giuliani to Hillary Clinton. And Scott Pelly's (ph) sit-down with President Bush. But what did we really learn from the endless rehash, and why did so many people say they would refuse to watch?

Well joining us now, Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York" magazine. He's in Philadelphia; Paul Farhi, staff writer for "The Washington Post", he's up in Boston; and here in Washington, Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "Time" Magazine; and Frank Sesno, CNN's former Washington bureau chief, now a professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University.

Michael Wolff, let me go out on a limb here. This was media overkill, media excess, and exercised in corporate branding -- your thoughts.

MICHAEL WOLFF, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Well, I think we have to go further than that. I think that we can say that this is the single most covered event in the history of all coverage, and this is accordingly the single most covered anniversary in the history of events that have already received lots of coverage.

It's staggering, and I think that making all due bows to when the reporting was good, I think there's also this other question that we have to ask about a fundamental distortion. Have we made this very large event even bigger? Have we made it the centerpiece of our lives and our era?

KURTZ: Exactly. Frank Sesno, there were times during the ceremonies I thought were rather moving, where some of the children were speaking, where the flowers were being laid, and I wished the anchors would just shut up and let us watch and listen.

FRANK SESNO, FMR. CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, you're kind of going against metabolism there a little bit I'm afraid, but yes, that's right. I mean, there were moments in the ceremony -- in the ceremonies where we really just should have been participants, spectators, nothing more, no commentary.

It's like the basketball game or the football game where the sports commentators don't shut up and you just watch the action, only this is on a much obviously more profound stage. But it's almost -- there's something almost cultural about this in the sense that we supersize everything in this country -- our malls, our fries, and to extent, our coverage. And we've got to figure out how to do that so we get the balance back.

KURTZ: And there is a lot of resentment, and we'll get into that in a moment. Paul Farhi in Boston, there was a moment on Fox when they were going to show the pictures of the World Trade Center collapsing again when the anchor, Jon Scott, said we feel it's important for this nation to remember why we're at war, and my reaction was, come on, could anybody forget?

PAUL FARHI, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I don't think anybody's going to forget why we're at war, but, frankly, I didn't think it was excessive. I didn't see that many shots of the buildings collapsing. I thought there was a certain amount of restraint there. You know, this is an event that's going to outlive us, outlive our children's memory, in a popular culture in a popular memory. A day long, you know, wallow in it didn't strike me as too much.

KURTZ: I want to come back to the question of violent images, but let me first turn to Karen Tumulty. It seemed to me, I talked to dozens and dozens of people, journalists, civilians, ordinary folks who said to me I don't want to watch anymore. I'm not watching it or I'm just going to watch a few minutes, that they didn't need the media to help them through this difficult day.

KAREN TUMULTY, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, they also had the option, then, of just turning off the television, as always. It's so often ...

KURTZ: And I think a lot of people took that option.

TUMULTY: And that's perfectly proper, and there's nothing, you know, wrong with giving them the option. But what I think is also happening here is the media is, as so often the case, neglecting the culture, and we live in this era where people somehow believe you can just talk and talk and talk and finally reach something that you can call closure. And I think that this was a lot of -- this sort of national self-analysis going on was very much a reflection ...

KURTZ: Or are we reflecting the culture of journalists who live in New York and Washington, cover this every day, think about it all the time, more so, perhaps, than some viewers?

SESNO: Well, there's partly -- that's partly it. I mean, there are an awful lot of journalists who themselves were personally touched by it, either by seeing it or knowing a friend or what have you who were affected or killed or lost. But I do think that there is something to be said for balance in all of this. I completely agree that this coverage was important, that the event needs to be commemorated, that the country has to remember that our younger generations need to find a way to remember this, and they are all about a media culture.

WOLFF: Yes, but there's a big difference between remembering something and actually you might even say reinventing something. I mean, I'd like to challenge something before, which I actually think I've challenged on this show before, this notion that we're at war. We're at war only because the media has been telling us we're at war. But on a -- any other object -- by any other objective criteria we're not.

KURTZ: Well, the media and the president. Paul Farhi, there was a moment that captured my attention in the morning on Wednesday. Don Rumsfeld was speaking at the beginning of the Pentagon ceremony. I know the Pentagon attack took second place in effect to that at the World Trade Center. And all the networks were showing it, but NBC broke away, and Katie Couric did an interview with a soldier in Afghanistan. She had a split screen up. On the other side of that interview was the soldier's wife and daughter in Boston, and she was sort of reuniting them electronically. Was that more important than listening to the secretary of defense at the Pentagon? What does that tell us about the sort of culture of television?

FARHI: No, actually, that wasn't more important. That was a little bit mockish, but it could have very well made the same point by putting it on tape. I just want to speak to the larger point here, though. We're talking about journalists who watched or experienced or participated in a daylong bit of coverage. The average person will not sit in front of the television set for the 12, 14, 16 hours in which this was going on. However, they will tune in, and they will tune out during the day, and they do want to see a national ritual taking place. So, to show them that is not necessarily a bad thing ...


FARHI: In fact, that's a public ...


FARHI: ... that's a public service.

WOLFF: How do you know they want to see this ritual take place?

FARHI: Well, I -- what other news story would you say happened on September 11 was as compelling as that.

WOLFF: Yes, but ...


WOLFF: ... that's not ...


WOLFF: ... that's not what you said, however. I mean, how do you know that this is exactly what the American public wants? On a rating basis ...


WOLFF: ... it actually isn't what they want.

FARHI: We, in the media, tend to tell people what we think is important. And in fact, I would say the public could override us on this day and say yes, that was -- that is the most important thing going on in this country, perhaps in the world on September 11.

SESNO: It's also a question of what people are looking at. It's -- you know, let's just not talk about quantity. Let's talk about quality. I mean there were times when, as Howie said a moment ago, the anchors needed to just be quiet and let the country, wherever they were watching, whoever was watching, be a part of the ceremonies. That was a solemn occasion. There were other very good reports that talked about the history of the terrorists and the trail that, you know, behind them and that kind of thing, but others that were gratuitous. Holding children and people on, you know, on your lap and that kind of thing is wallowing and intruding where journalists shouldn't go.

KURTZ: I want to come back to this question about the level of restraint in showing the violent images that we've all seen so many times. There was a point at 8:00 p.m. that evening where I saw the plane hitting the World Trade Center on every network, as everybody did their reconstructions and we asked our viewers last week their opinion on this. Are the media showing too many images of the 9/11 attacks?

Marty from Hilton Head, South Carolina wrote "Yes, yes, yes, I can't stand to watch the planes hit the towers over and over again, or see scenes of funerals or interviews of grieving relatives. We've seen it all for the past year. I have reached the saturation point."

But Jane from Baltimore said, "The coverage of the attack on this country should be wall-to-wall on 9/11. This isn't about the media. It's about horrible people attacking innocent people, and we should be reminded of it daily. Show it all" -- Karen Tumulty.

TUMULTY: Well, again, it gets back to choice, too, and if this were happening at a time when there were only three television networks, and that's all, you know, that people had a choice of watching, it would have been one thing. But, I mean, if you don't like it, go to the food channel ...

KURTZ: In fact, Paul Farhi, weren't a lot of the non-news networks also indulging in 9/11 coverage?

FARHI: Yes. You had BRAVO and Arts and Entertainment. You had Showtime, strangely enough, doing documentaries about this. I found that a little bit odd, but nevertheless, there were alternatives. You want to watch the Cartoon Network; the Cartoon Network was on television.

SESNO: The only -- and the only people watching all of these screens are arguably people like us. Most people watch one channel at a time.

So they will absorb something. Here's the danger -- the real danger, it's not what happened on 9/11, but the danger is does that coverage or the coverage and the mindset that led to it, squeeze out legitimate important debate on other topics, make it somehow unpatriotic to ask questions, or intimidate journalists from asking questions or writing tough articles. In many ways, that's more of a barometer of what the 9/11 coverage was about than how much was out there.


WOLFF: Or in addition to that, does this level of media coverage provide the mandate in effect for the president to go to war?

KURTZ: Let me -- we want to come back to that, but let me read to you, Michael Wolff, what a couple of TV critics had to say. "Chicago Tribune" criticized CNN for while running the names of the dead on the call to the bottom of the screen, putting a little logo before it that said "CNN Remembers." And Al West (ph) and former ABC News vice president told the "Boston Globe," this was just before 9/11, "I think we've now heard and exhausted the stories about the mothers and the widows and the fathers and the children. And nobody wants to appear insensitive to the pain and suffering that so many families went through, but is there an element of serial exploitation here" -- Michael Wolff?

WOLFF: Well, I think if this is the most covered event in the history of events -- the second most covered event was the death of Diana, and I think we can look and see similarities here. What this is about is about a new kind of sentiment of public sentiment, of video sentiment, of in fact, sentiment, and this is the other interesting effect that this can have, of transitory sentiment. We do it. We see it. We go through this ritual thing, and then it's over, and in fact, what this whole exercise will be is an exercise in forgetting.

FARHI: I find it hard to imagine that anybody's going to forget 9/11, whether the media is here to tell us about it or not.

WOLFF: I think we should meet here a year from now, because I -- because that's exactly what -- is the process that we have now begun.


FARHI: Well, there's no question ...


WOLFF: ... the Diana process.

FARHI: ... there's no question that the next anniversary of 9/11 will not be as covered this one. But I guarantee you that it will be excess -- it will be covered quite a lot ...

WOLFF: And I likewise will guarantee you that this is a process of going away, that actually the media, this is driving a stake through its heart, that this is -- that even though the media went out, covered it in the way they've covered it, in fact now it is over with.

FARHI: You know, it's very interesting how journalists are so uncomfortable with emotion. Viewers, readers are not uncomfortable with emotion ...

WOLFF: What are you talking about we're uncomfortable with emotion? That's all we do. That's what television is about.

FARHI: And yet ...

WOLFF: ... emotion.

FARHI: ... and yet, you're sitting here criticizing the fact that the coverage was too emotional.


FARHI: ... too excessive.

WOLFF: Well, I -- there's emotion and then there's phony emotion.

FARHI: I didn't really see it.

SESNO: I think -- actually I think much of the emotion wasn't phony. In fact, I think 90 percent of it was not phony, and I think at some level clearly ...

WOLFF: Hey, no ...

SESNO: Wait a minute. Let me finish ...

WOLFF: ... it's phony because ...

SESNO: ... let me finish ...

WOLFF: ... we're ...

SESNO: ... let me finish.

WOLFF: ... selling this.

SESNO: May I finish? I think you can go over the edge and when taking all together the placement, the tone, the music, everything, it can become more theater than it can be reporting. But there's something very important -- I saw it happen in my own home when my 15- year-old son sat down, saw those families, saw those mothers, saw those kids without fathers, and parents, and he wept, a 15-year-old kid. And he came back the next day from his high school and talked about the kids talking about how depressing and moving it was. That's profoundly important, and that's what good journalism should do.

WOLFF: Yes, but that's what -- I wept too. Barbara Walters made me weep, but that's what Barbara Walters does. She always makes me weep.

KURTZ: It sounds like a good time to break. Yes, going to break here, and when we come back, did all journalists get red in the face over a code orange alert? We'll talk about that and 9/11 coverage in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. In the midst of about 10 days really of 9/11-anniversary coverage, Karen Tumulty, there was the other day a code orange alert. Everybody had those orange boxes on their screen, and television just went nuts over this, even though as in the past alerts, there were very few specifics. We didn't know anything was happening. Is this an overreaction or is it simply covering what the government does?

TUMULTY: Well, it was, of course, an overreaction because it goes to the weakness of the whole color-coded alert system in the first place. The media had no choice but to sort of throw up their hands and go to saturation coverage because it was the first time that this color had actually changed ...

KURTZ: A new color ...

TUMULTY: But the problem ...


TUMULTY: ... the problem was that there was nothing the media could offer people as to exactly what they were supposed to do to respond to the color change.

KURTZ: I noticed, Paul Farhi, that there was an absolute saturation point of coverage on all the networks, particularly cable when that orange alert came on until word came the House Committee had referred to the Justice Department the case of Martha Stewart and everybody managed to break away for awhile and then come back.

FARHI: Right. Well, that's the problem with the code orange and all the whole color-coding is what are you supposed to show on television when we go to code orange other than Donald Rumsfeld or Tom Ridge saying we're at code orange. It's just not a good TV story, unfortunately.

KURTZ: Did the -- did the code orange and the 9/11 extravaganza, which wasn't really a day. It really was about two weeks, it seemed to me, Michael Wolff. Did that overshadow a very interesting political story in Florida with another election screw-up and Janet Reno not conceding and all of that. Wouldn't that have gotten a lot more coverage if we had not been in the environment?

WOLFF: Well, it overshadowed everything. I mean, there may be all kinds of stories that we're not -- that we're not aware of.

KURTZ: We'll never know.

WOLFF: I mean, it was -- it has become and this is actually it's overshadowed not just in the last -- in the last several weeks. It's overshadowed every story for the past year.

KURTZ: But I mean, haven't corporate scandals and possible baseball strike and other things broken through the static?

WOLFF: Briefly I think that they've broken through. I think that even those stories would have been of a much different nature. And in a sense -- actually in a sense you can argue that those -- that those stories may even be bigger because of 9/11, that we have to set up this competition against the 9/11 story.

SESNO: What has happened on -- in -- on cable news in particular as we've gone to a wall-to-wall coverage whenever even remotely possible of one story. There is only one story, and it will go on and on and on and it will squeeze out just about anything else. With respect to code orange, beware because there is a very dangerous line between informing and inflaming. And when you put out live news alert bullet ...

KURTZ: ... that yellow, that orange and that red.

SESNO: Yes, duck.

KURTZ: But we talked about -- everything seemed to have reeked varying degrees that there was a lot of coverage of 9/11, perhaps too much. Would the country have been better, Frank Sesno, if the other day all the networks had done 16 hours on whether we should go to war with Iraq, what's involved, what the costs are, human, economic.

SESNO: No, not on 9/11. I think it was appropriate for there to be ...


KURTZ: Next Wednesday.


KURTZ: But that's not going to happen.

SESNO: Well ... TUMULTY: Oh, there's been plenty of coverage of whether we should go to war with Iraq.

KURTZ: Not this kind of blow out, bring out your big anchors, let's interview all the heavy hitters. Sure, there's been plenty of coverage, but not on the scale of 9/11.

FARHI: Well, we know that -- we know that cable news is kind of the tail that wags the dog. They do cover too excess one story and another, and it becomes the defining story of the time.


KURTZ: ... for example.

FARHI: I'm very happy that the story that is the tail wagging the dog is 9/11 and its related subjects as opposed to Gary Condit or shark attacks or something completely superficial. There really is no bigger story than 9/11 and its related topics.

WOLFF: Or I have another proposal. Why didn't we just go dark for the day? Just a day of silence ...


WOLFF: ... a day of quiet.

SESNO: Wouldn't it be interesting if on future 9/11s, not unlike in Japan where on the days when the bombs were dropped, there is a moment of silence nationwide and bells or sirens or something like that just to mark it and little more and no words for a change. That would be very powerful.

TUMULTY: And this may be worth mentioning that one of the few classy acts, you know, that we've seen in awhile from politicians is the fact that they actually did go silent on 9/11.

KURTZ: Oh, but they had to. How much media coverage would they have gotten? They were have been accused of being crass and insensitive because ...

TUMULTY: But the ...

KURTZ: ... the media had set up a construct that nobody could talk about anything else.

TUMULTY: But the ads came down. You didn't see that everybody -- you know all those primary winners from these 10 states doing their victory laps the next day. I thought it was -- I thought it was a good move and again, a sense of balance that we often don't see from politicians.

KURTZ: You're all invited back a year from now. We'll replay the tape, see if some of these predictions came true. Paul Farhi, Michael Wolff, Frank Sesno, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back, the media searching for words about 9/11. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page".


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb's take on 9/11 remembered by the press.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You can't say they didn't try, just the opposite. Newspapers, magazines, TV, they all tried to find the words that would seize 9/11 the second time around. Give us a phrase, a sentence that would say what we all felt.

"Resilient nation pauses and reflects on September 11 attacks" from "USA Today." "New Yorkers reclaim a seared city" from "The Washington Post." The media tried in all ways, essays in the magazines, poetry on the op-ed pages, specials on TV. Even the politicians gave the media an assist by recruiting a famous speech from more than a century ago in an effort to capture the moment.

GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, NEW YORK: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty.

KALB (voice over): But the morning after, the next day, September 12, "The Times" said it for all of us. "There are no more words right now for us to about September 11. Words have become exhausted. Faces were much more eloquent, more revealing in catching the emotions of the moment. Our own hearts were writing our own thoughts, only for ourselves unspoken."

The anchors, too, joined in the reverential and hypnotic wordlessness. For a change, commentators let coverage unfold without too much talk -- instead faces.



KALB: One day they're put up a monument of what happened at ground zero, but these faces of 9/11/02 are once in a lifetime and a magnificent memorial to 9/11/01.





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