9/11/02

One year later, local media struggle to make sense of the terrorist attacks--and their own coverage

Tracy Rowlett knows the biggest challenge his station, KTVT Channel 11, faces next week is to avoid getting too maudlin, too caught up in the emotions of remembering the terrorist attacks of September 11. Not that they won't interview or talk about people who were and are deeply affected by the day's horrors. But he worries that television media especially are susceptible to overemoting when discussing 9/11. "The greatest pitfall we fear falling into," he says, "is trite coverage of such an important event."

Nevertheless, as he prepares for the onslaught of national and local reporting that will mark the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Rowlett, lead anchor and managing editor at Channel 11, can't help but remember the 9/11 story that always makes him cry.

"CBS did this story on a woman whose husband was working in the World Trade Center," he says. "And when she found out it collapsed, she feared her husband was dead. So what she did that day, she sat down and took a full accounting of their time together. The time they'd spent together, the time apart, all the things she wished she'd said to him and done with him.

"And she was one of the lucky ones. At the end of the day, he called her. He had made it out. She was given another chance." Even now, there's a slight hitch in his throat when he tells the story. "And I don't care who you are or how many of these stories you've seen, that's very affecting. And we can't run away from stories like that or from remembering what happened. It's just that we, as the storytellers, can't get caught up in it ourselves. And that's hard not to do sometimes, especially in television."

Indeed, conversations with editors and reporters at several local media suggest everyone is mindful of concerns that mirror Rowlett's. All talk of wanting to adequately honor and remember 9/11/01 on 9/11/02, without seeming crass or commercial in doing so.

That's a tougher task than it may at first sound, for two reasons. One, everyone will be doing the same litany of stories: updates on North Texas residents who were in New York or Washington or who had loved ones there; exploring the amorphous "how have we changed?" story; examining the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of homeland security measures at airports, hospitals, government buildings, etc. If everyone who is paying tribute strikes the same note, it risks losing any impact whatsoever.

Two, the fact that media have always hammered home the "anniversary story" makes the vehicle less than ideal for paying tribute. When we have all grown up on endless date-based stories--50 years ago, we exploded the first hydrogen bomb!...Elvis died 25 years ago!...last month, a WNBA player slam-dunked!--they threaten to be seen as not only trite, but laughably ineffective. How can we remember terrorist attacks in the same way we remember pop culture?

Which is why Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, uses the word "restrained" no fewer than six times while discussing his paper's plans for September 11 coverage. Even though the entire Belo company will observe a five-minute window of silence on September 11--so that employees can in their own way honor or ponder the attacks, which, forgive me, sounds too much like forced prayer--the paper itself has no such overbearing plans. "We were concerned about the girth of our special section," he says, aware that his paper has been gigged about the enormity of its special sections, specifically its monstrous yearly football preview. The special 9/11 section will appear Wednesday the 11th, not on the Sunday before, as many papers will do.

"We did not want to do a big blowout," he says. "We were selective about what went in it, because we didn't want the readers to feel overwhelmed with coverage. I mean, most of our discussions centered on the point that we could, if we wanted to, produce massive amounts of information and images, but for what point? If what we want is an intelligent distillation of what happened on September 11 and what has gone on since, where we're going, all that, then there has to be a balance."

Granted, it's hard to suggest that any newspaper or TV news 9/11 story is crass when compared with typical radio DJ stunts, even the well-meaning ones. For example, "Action Jaxon" at KBFB 97.9 The Beat began bicycling to New York City on September 2 as part of an anniversary stunt. Jaxon says he is doing so to "show that the American spirit has not faded." Unfortunately, what he's showing is that what radio does well is play music, not offer social commentary.

Radio could take a lesson from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which has long "done anniversaries in a big way," as one editor puts it. In this case, the paper has also chosen to contain itself. Kathy Vetter, managing editor for enterprise and investigations, says that editor Jim Witt declared early on in the 9/11 planning process that the paper would not rerun pictures of people jumping out of the World Trade Center. The paper's special 9/11 section will run Sunday the 8th.

"But if we don't use, say, images of the plane heading toward the tower, well, it would be dishonest not to use them," Vetter says. "We really tried, as best you can, to capture the emotion of the week. Both the clear horror of the day and the triumph of the spirit afterward. And in the rest of the paper, then and throughout the week, we'll be looking at all the other obvious stories: the security and civil liberties issues, revisiting some of the people who were involved, asking, 'Is Texas any safer?'...things we feel people need to know."

Nationally, of course, the onslaught of remembrance has begun. Other media throughout the country are planning bigger or longer tributes than many local outlets. Already you can read the "9/11: America Remembers" package of stories on msnbc.com, or Newsweek's special report, "America: A Year After." Mong understands the deluge of coverage from the East Coast. "It's a very different situation in New York City or D.C., where they witnessed so much devastation," he says. "Which is why if we were The New York Times, we would approach our coverage differently."

Rex Seline, managing editor/news at the Star-Telegram, echoes Mong. "We've chosen not to be comprehensive. We'll have plenty of coverage, but we don't want to do it just to rehash and relive it. We don't want to force people to go through it all again if they don't want to."

Seline, who has worked at The New York Times, says he agrees with most of his media brethren that although it's too easy to cross the line in 9/11 coverage and look crass, it's too important a milestone to ignore. The risk is worth the coverage because of the indisputable life-altering consequences of that day.

"I have been away from the photos for many months," he says. "But I walked by and saw some of the old photos on the wall of one of our [graphic] designers when we were putting this together, and it's still shockingly powerful stuff. You don't need to yell too loud to make your point about the impact this had. Those images tell the story themselves."

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