The good, the great and the not so good

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

They covered themselves in glory, the men and women of network news. They were only doing their jobs, but it is hard to remember a crisis when they did them better, or when their presence seemed more important for keeping the country informed and preventing it from coming apart at the seams.
Not that long after the first plane hit the first tower of the World Trade Center, the networks jettisoned all commercials and launched into marathon coverage, and as of Friday night, they were still at it. The cost in lost revenue alone was estimated at up to $35 million a day for the Big 3. But what was impressive was the performance of the anchors and correspondents-and the fact that, generally, network spokesmen behind the scenes were neither tooting their own horns nor bad-mouthing one another.
Oh, CNN and Fox did get in a few punches at one another as the week wore on, but this was the exception. However one may feel about the normal output of the Fox News Channel, its staff did prove they could do more than stage hissy-fits by talking heads. At first there was heavy reliance on New York local stations, but eventually FNC showed it could actually cover a story. On Sept. 11, it logged the highest ratings in its history.
Of the anchors, Dan Rather seemed easily to outdistance Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, both in terms of total hours on the air (16 per day, through Friday) and the way he kept his cool. Brokaw’s unflappability gets to be eerie at times; it wouldn’t be unprofessional for him to show some little hint of emotion, would it? Brokaw did get angry once, justifiably, when beset with a series of technical glitches, including one taped piece suddenly rewinding while it was on the air.
Viewers could hear him shout, “What’s going on?” when he thought his mike was off. Then, calmly, he apologized to viewers and asked for their “forbearance.” Of course, all the networks had snafus. They were pushing their resources to the limit. But a viewer at home got a sense of professionals doing their jobs beyond mere professionalism. They had thrown themselves into this heart and soul.
Jennings started out well. The first day, working in his shirtsleeves from the anchor desk, he seemed effortlessly in command. But his performance curdled in the days to come. His old arrogant hauteur came back, and he got into his Imperial Anchor mode, treating correspondents the way a professor would treat first-year law students, issuing orders and acting grandiose.
The thought occurs: He’s really getting off on this. He loves looking like the King of News, national Editor-in-Chief. And then came his lowest point and a sad interlude for ABC’s coverage. Jennings convened a little pro-Palestinian seminar on Thursday afternoon that went overboard in attempting to “understand” the kind of monsters who would turn airplanes into bombs and make a nation weep.
Most prominent in the segment, which droned on for 23 long minutes, was Jennings’ old pal Hanan Ashrawi, tireless apologist for the PLO, identified as “spokesperson, Arab League.” Jennings, who has often been criticized for his own pro-Palestinian bias, asked her how people could hate America so much that they would resort to this kind of slaughter.
Ashrawi, who began and ended her participation with a big broad smile (and offered not a word of sympathy), blamed American foreign policy, “mistakes” the country had made in the past and, of course, Israel, which she claimed gets “preferential treatment” from the United States and, internationally, is “treated as a country above the law.” Pure bull. Jennings sat there implicitly agreeing-certainly not challenging a word of her flaming propaganda.
ABC News President David Westin should have walked onto the set and fired Jennings on the spot. That would have been good TV.
During the solemn prayer service from the Washington National Cathedral on Friday, Brokaw and Rather kept silent during remarks from clergymen, hymns, even during the chiming of a bell at the end of the ceremony. Jennings felt free to blab and did. And on this day, which George W. Bush had proclaimed one of remembrance and prayer, couldn’t Jennings have compromised his principles and put on his suit coat? Was it really more important that he sit there looking casual and “cool”?
Jennings’ love for himself is infinite and limitless. He’s the Kathie Lee Gifford of network anchors. And we don’t need a Kathie Lee Gifford of network anchors.
Meanwhile, the networks aired so many remarkable pieces, filed by so many outstanding correspondents, that it is hard to single out any of them. Connie Chung’s moving interview on ABC with Howard Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald-a company hit hard by the tragedy-shattered the image of the corporate executive as cold number cruncher. Lutnick could not hold back tears as he talked about the losses suffered by the families of his employees and his determination to help them.
Every network showed people walking around New York streets holding snapshots of missing loved ones. Seeing them was always wrenching, but the best piece about them may have been the one Harold Dow did for CBS News from suburban New Jersey. Basically he just let them come forward, hold their photos up to the camera (many with names and phone numbers scrawled on attached slips of paper) and tell their heartbreaking stories.
We saw many people grieving, and some viewers may have felt this was a kind of intrusion on a private experience, except that nobody was ambushed and the people seemed anxious to talk about those they had lost, to let the world know that these people mattered. They put human faces on the impersonal numbers of “missing and presumed dead.”
On Friday, however, pool cameras went too far by searching out weeping people in the crowd at the Cathedral and then zooming in-sometimes way, way in-to show us tears. This was too much, and the people were being violated.
ABC seemed to exhibit the most restraint with graphics, but on all the networks, graphics got out of hand at times, shrinking the powerful images to give us the network’s logo, some made-up title for the coverage (“Attack on America” or whatever) and tickertape headlines along the bottom of the screen. It was as if everybody had been watching CNN’s awful new Headline News and decided this was the way to go. The gaudy graphics were especially inappropriate during the church service.
Critics have to complain; it’s what they do. But there is remarkably little, in this case, to complain about. My next-door neighbor phoned me during the coverage to talk about it. “Thank God for television,” she said. In fact she said it twice. You don’t often hear those words, but in this case, I believe she was saying what the whole country was thinking.
These were indeed among the networks’ finest hours. Unfortunately, what we were watching was not coverage of a crisis, but coverage of a crisis that has only begun.