Terror TV

The television moments that can even begin to
are few: On November 24, 1963, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of 20
million television viewers--more than 20 percent of the United States population
at the time. On January 28, 1986, millions of viewers--many of them
children--witnessed the loss of American lives in real time as the space shuttle
Challenger hurtled skyward and exploded. On March 6, 1975, Geraldo Rivera
(yes, him) first aired Abraham Zapruder's famous amateur movie--which showed
President Kennedy's head erupt in a spray of blood as the presidential motorcade
made its way through Dealey Plaza in Dallas--on ABC's Good Night America.

None of those earlier images, however, was as shocking, horrific, or tragic
as the live video broadcast of United Airlines flight 175 crashing into the south
tower of the World Trade Center. Consider, for perspective, the Zapruder film.
President Kennedy was as powerful a symbol of American vitality in his way as New
York City's twin towers were to become--and his death stoked fears, much like
today's, about an enemy among us, one we could not see and fight conventionally.
But the horror captured by the Zapruder film was not seen by the American public
until more than a decade after the event, when its immediacy had faded.

Or consider the Challenger disaster, which loomed enormously large in the
symbolic landscape of the late 1980s and was replayed endlessly through the
winter of 1986. The explosion 73 seconds after takeoff with a non-astronaut
civilian on board--the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe--was a terrible tragedy
and delivered a jarring blow to the American psyche (were we being punished for
our technological hubris?). But the death toll was "only" seven--the size of a
bad car wreck's. The death toll in the September 11 catastrophe, in contrast,
will approach 7,000.

The object of a terrorist attack, as opposed to a conventional military
assault, is seldom to gain territory, capture resources, or defeat an army
through superior killing capacity; rather, it is to sow instability and fear
through its dramatic effects. In fact, there is a long-established thematic
connection between terrorism and theater. Each strives to make an ideological
point through dramatic impact; each seeks to amplify this impact (and therefore
its ideological point) by reaching the broadest possible audience. And at least
since the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany--when Palestinian terrorists took
Israeli athletes hostage, killing 11 of them, as a worldwide TV audience
estimated as high as 900 million followed the ordeal--terrorists have known that
the surest route to a broad audience is through television.

It was therefore no accident that the September 11 strikes had such a fearsome
visual power. The terrorists surely calculated that in the minutes after American
Airlines flight 11 struck One World Trade Center the national media would
converge on the southern tip of Manhattan to train their television cameras on
the burning building. Regular programming would be pre-empted; the big-time
anchors and reporters would be summoned; phone calls and e-mails would circulate,
urging friends and relatives to the television set. In short, by the time United
Airlines flight 175 struck Two World Trade Center, the whole world would be

From the terrorists' perspective, the most important targets were the
secondary ones: everyone in the country who wasn't killed by the attacks.
That is, while the assaults were clearly designed to take massive numbers of
human lives and to destroy symbolically important buildings, the ultimate goal
was not necessarily the buildings or lives themselves but the minds of the
American people.

For this reason, television almost inevitably plays a complicit role in
terrorist acts. It is the ideal delivery vehicle for the dramatic visual images
terrorists create; indeed, it may be that in many cases television is the sine
qua non for a terrorist attack. By serving the public interest, which requires
broadcasting terrorist actions (and the effects of terrorist actions), television
is also serving the terrorists' interests: transmitting horrifying images to
massive numbers of people, thereby engendering mass anxiety and instability.

Television itself does not take lives, destroy buildings, or commit evil acts.
The shocking termination of United Airlines flight 175 would have been no less
tragic had it not been captured on live television. And yet it should be obvious
that the priorities of television and those of terrorism are somewhat aligned.
Television relies on the potent visual image to attract viewers, boost ratings,
and keep advertiser revenue flowing. (Why else but in pursuit of such an image
did all the networks break away from their regular programming to follow O.J.
Simpson along the freeways of Los Angeles in his white Bronco?) And terrorism,
which traffics in potent visual images, relies on television as a transmission
mechanism. The relationship between terrorism and television is therefore
undeniably symbiotic.

Yet what is TV to do? Refuse to cover terrorist activity, as at least one
antiterrorism expert has suggested, on the logic that if a terrorist act happens
and no one's there to cover it, the act never really happened? As a philosophical
exercise, that might make sense; in practice, it's absurd. News divisions and
all-news cable networks, despite their corporate parents' financial demands, do
aspire to serve the public interest. And it is a public-interest requirement that
terrorist activity be covered; it's a matter not just of political and social
importance but of basic public safety. We need to know if the water supply has
been poisoned, or when to evacuate a business district, or simply when to be
especially wary--even if this heightened wariness plays right into the
terrorists' hands.

At some level, there is no way out of this symbiotic
cycle: As
long as television exists (and it always will), terrorists will capitalize on its
amplifying power; and as long as people commit acts of terror, television will
cover them. But there are ways to minimize how damaging this cycle is and ways
for television to help keep a society both open and strong. Happily, amidst all
the carnage, American television performed well in the wake of September 11.

Terrorists hope that television will foster panic beyond what is warranted
by the terrorist acts themselves. The simplest check on this phenomenon is to
practice careful and responsible reporting. And for the most part--especially in
comparison to last November's election--the broadcast and cable news networks
have in fact been very careful and responsible.

Inevitably, there were some mistakes and premature judgments. With so many
consecutive days of continuous, round-the-clock, commercial-free coverage, how
could there not be? There was the false hope generated when several news
organizations, led by Fox News (as seems so often to be the case when a report is
inaccurate), falsely told viewers that five firefighters trapped for nearly two
days in an SUV had been rescued alive from beneath the rubble. Several times,
late at night, when ABC's Peter Jennings had been on the air for too long and was
visibly losing his grip, he began constructing elaborate plots out of thin reeds
of evidence. "Now I don't want to panic anyone," he would say--which of course
meant he was about to say something panic-inducing.

All of the Big Three anchors--Jennings, CBS's Dan Rather, and NBC's Tom
Brokaw--did multiple 15-hour shifts, and all three appeared, at times, to be
sleepy, rambling, confused. Some of the cable-network anchors seemed
disconcertingly out of their depth. After the murder of a Sikh in Arizona, CNN
interviewed a Sikh religious leader and didn't seem to grasp any more clearly
than the Arizona murderer the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. In a press
conference the Friday after the attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was driven
to implore that the news networks be careful about what they report, lest they
cause false alarms or false hopes, or send rescue workers scurrying after red
herrings. All things considered, however, the first week's coverage was careful
and restrained. CBS's éminence grise, 60 Minutes creator Don
told USA Today that the week had been "TV's most shining moment since the
Kennedy assassination--when America came to the TV set and held hands--and it may
be TV's finest moment ever."

Hewitt, along with other network executives who praised the first week's
coverage, pointed especially to the spirit of cooperation that prevailed among
the usually bitterly competitive news divisions. Aside from Afghanistan coverage
by CNN, which proudly claimed the only broadcast correspondent in Kabul (Nic
Robertson, who happened to be there covering a trial), the networks shared video
footage. Also, many non-news cable networks gave themselves over to other
networks' news coverage for several days: ESPN broadcast ABC News; VH1 and MTV
broadcast CBS News; TBS and TNS broadcast CNN; Court TV broadcast CNN after 10:00
P.M.; and the Learning Channel broadcast the BBC. Of course, at some level this
is just what the terrorists wanted--a newscast multiplier effect such that even a
teenager seeking solace in an MTV soap opera instead found Dan Rather talking
over yet another replay of United Airlines flight 175. But this collective
news-gathering and news-broadcasting enterprise lent television a spirit of
national community rarely seen since the advent of cable. "The national
campfire," Jennings called it, with some justification, as we all huddled around

The networks also put aside commercial considerations for an extended period,
at a cost estimated between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars per day. Not
that they had much choice in the matter; no advertiser in its right mind wants
its products hawked in the midst of a tragedy. Still, the absence of commercials
during this time helped reinforce the impression that the networks' priorities
were in the right place. (At least for the most part. A catfight did erupt
between CNN and Fox News. CNN, who had stolen hotshot anchorwoman Paula Zahn from
Fox just prior to the calamity, put out a press release trumpeting its high
ratings in the top 51 "metered" markets for the day of the attack. Fox News
dislikes these metered market ratings--it prefers the full national numbers
because it has poor penetration in selected markets--and responded with a press
release saying that "CNN has a reputation for distorting numbers, a despicable
practice made more disappointing during a national tragedy such as this."
Responding to the memo, a CNN executive told Variety, "[Fox News head]
Ailes should be thanking us because Fox News used so much of our footage
throughout the day. Instead, he follows his usual pattern of going on the
offensive and using vile language against us.")

Finally, what is normally one of television's great weaknesses--its tendency
toward manipulative sentimental exploitation--may prove to be an aid toward
recovering from this national trauma. In many cases, as after the
explosion and the Oklahoma City bombing, the media pries voyeuristically into the
private reactions of victims' families, seeking mawkish drama on the cheap. But
in the week after the attacks, my initial revulsion at what looked to be yet
another instance of emotional pornography gave way to the recognition that in
this instance, perhaps uniquely, the heart-wrenching stories of people looking
(in vain, alas) for their missing loved ones in lower-Manhattan hospitals were
actually providing a useful social function. As painful as these segments are to
watch, and as uncomfortable as it makes me to see TV reporters serving as
psychoanalysts and grief counselors (many of them sincerely overcome with emotion
themselves), broadcasting these stories does seem to be helping the victims'
families to deal with the loss of hope and to begin to grieve. Hearing these
stories also helps lend a flesh-and-blood reality to a tragedy otherwise so
unfathomably horrible as to be merely abstract.

One important thing to bear in mind--a point I've made in these pages
before--is that often when television goes into continuous-coverage mode, what
you're watching is not news but the news-gathering process. Sometimes this can be
revealing: You watch reporters trying to get government officials or elected
politicians to say things they don't want to or aren't allowed to reveal. (At one
point, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, simultaneously tantalized and frustrated Peter Jennings, in effect
telling him: "I can't answer that question because if I do, then you'll ask the
logical follow-up question, and I definitely can't answer that one without
jeopardizing national security"--a response that left Jennings apologetic and
millions of viewers trying to puzzle out what the follow-up question would have
been.) Other times, you see anchors and their field reporters in delicate pas de
deux: The anchor tries to get the reporter to go deeper, or to reveal more, or to
unveil who has provided a particular piece of information; in response, the
reporter somewhat chippily conveys that, in effect, "I can't go there without
burning a source," and the anchor has to backtrack and apologize for putting the
reporter on the spot.

Television is good at some things and bad at others. It can be good at
delivering unadulterated images that make powerful statements; again, this is a
big reason why TV is so important to terrorists. It is generally not
good--particularly when in continuous-coverage mode--at placing things in their
proper context. Television in the era of 24-hours-a-day coverage is news as a
process. Print, even the daily paper, is almost always a better place to get
information in its proper perspective; it is news as a set of fixed points in an
understandable constellation. (In the newspaper, for example, you don't have to
decipher the interplay between editor and reporter; it's all been worked out in
advance.) Television, on the other hand, is news as shooting stars flashing
across the sky in all directions--and sometimes those stars turn out to have been
not stars but a satellite or a trick of the eye. The late Philip Graham,
publisher of The Washington Post, famously described journalism as the
rough draft of history. In that sense, TV's coverage of an unfolding story is the
first rough draft of journalism. Still, during a national crisis, television
becomes the default source for the vast majority of Americans. At one point on
the day of the attacks, Google.com, which is
one of the best and most heavily
trafficked of the Internet search engines, posted a message telling people to
turn off their computers and turn on their television sets.

It is a hideous irony that in some ghastly sense the terrorists achieved what
network executives had been seeking since Survivor debuted on CBS two years
ago: ratings-busting "reality TV." (And in the context of current events, could
there be a more unfortunately titled--or more unfortunately premised--program
than that one?) That's what makes us so susceptible to the psychological effects
of terror: We're all watching TV, and the terrorists know that. It is a further
weird irony that the only sentient adults in America who may have been immune to
the short-term psychological effects of the September 11 terror tactics were the
three final contestants on Big Brother 2, another so-called reality-TV show
on CBS, in which competitors are sequestered in a hermetically sealed house,
trying to outlast one another in a Survivor-style fight to the finish under
the constant eye of TV cameras. According to the New York Daily News, the
last houseguests--Monica Bailey, Nicole Nilson, and Will Kirby--knew only
"sketchy details" in the days after the attacks rocked the world; and they knew
those only because Bailey's family pressured network executives to inform them
after Bailey's cousin was discovered to be among the World Trade Center missing.
But the three participants saw no television images or even newspaper photos of
the devastation.

They don't know how fortunate they are.