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How we'll view it

Some call the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage flooding network and cable TV this week tasteless self-promotion, while others see a way for the public to come together to honor the lost.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


Some call the Sept. 11 anniversary coverage flooding network and cable TV this week tasteless self-promotion, while others see a way for the public to come together to honor the lost.

He knows some people say they're sick of hearing about it.

And even though a year has passed since his brother, a firefighter, likely died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, sometimes the loss still feels fresh.

But when TV networks begin filling up with Sept. 11 anniversary coverage this week, Hillsborough County firefighter Brian Muldowney expects to watch. Even while attending memorial services Wednesday at the former firehouse of his brother, Richard, in New York.

"Sept. 11 is a day that's gonna live on forever. To recognize it is something we have to do," said Muldowney, a native New Yorker who also lost a cousin and several friends in the attack.

"Anything they have on Sept. 11 I'll watch, just hoping to get a glimpse of my brother," he added, noting that Richard's remains have not been found. "It might help the families . . . to see (firefighters) doing their job with zero fear on their faces. It's okay to move on, but don't ever forget it."

Pundits and naysayers may decry the flood of special news coverage, feature documentaries, town hall meetings, memorials and concerts planned this week to commemorate the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil.

But there are also viewers like Muldowney, who feel compelled to immerse themselves in another shared experience that echoes the mass grieving and acknowledgements of heroism that filled TV screens one year ago.

"TV provides the opportunity for the public to come together, pay tribute and offer comfort again," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "I don't hold with those who are saying this is going to be wretched excess. We're taking note of the triumph of the human spirit over unbelievable tragedy -- that's something unique that (journalists) can provide."

Blanket coverage

Certainly, viewers will have lots of options, with all the broadcast networks and many cable networks offering loads of coverage from today to Wednesday (see related story, this page).

Most news outlets will have anchors posted at Ground Zero in New York City. Their themes will be similar: survivors coping; ongoing terrorist threats; war in Afghanistan; recollections of survivors, government officials and emergency workers; memorials to those who died.

Of course, all networks will air a prime time address by President George W. Bush. And most have promised to limit use of the footage showing the airplanes striking the World Trade Center towers.

"We really have two objectives here," said NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. "About half (the coverage) will be dedicated to the idea of memorial and memory and what we can learn. The other part of it will be what we've learned since then . . . what we need to know as we go into the future."

Industry experts say the two biggest pitfalls of such blanket coverage will be repetition and self-promotion.

"I hope they have the good taste not to turn this into a self-promotional orgy," said Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast department at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "I think it was unfortunate that in television coverage of Sept. 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, that TV newspeople felt it was necessary to use those occasions to promote their own people."

But Geraldo Rivera and Ashley Banfield aside, TV networks may find themselves in a can't-win-for-losing situation come 9/11 this year: Despite possible viewer saturation, no TV news outlet wants to be accused of skimping on coverage.

Viewer strategy

Another possible problem: watching too much.

Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University, urged viewers to pace themselves and turn off the TV or crack open a book if the images prove too upsetting.

"The strategy is, 'Don't gorge yourself,' " added Fischoff, who recommended most people take a break every 20 minutes or so (the National Mental Health Association has also advised viewers to limit their exposure to 9/11 memorial programming). "People watch something and get upset -- thinking if they watch more and get more information, they will get less upset -- but the opposite happens."

Horrific as details from the attack are, commemorating the event's anniversary is a natural impulse, according to the psychologist.

"We are a commemorative species," Fischoff explained, noting the brain carves out specific chemical memory traces after an intensely emotional event that can bring feelings of satisfaction if revisited. "People commemorate everything . . . their first date, their last date, their marriage, their divorce. Catering to those memories produces an emotional response that is gratifying."

For kids, experts suggest parents make sure young children know the attacks are not happening again. Also, unless they live in New York City or near the Pentagon, parents should remind their children that the attacks didn't happen in their neighborhood, or inside their familiar environment.

"If the (memorial coverage) is making parents feel sad or cry, they should be aware of how that's impacting the child," said McCrae Parker, a senior associate at Children Now, a research and advocacy group based in Oakland, Calif. "They should be willing to talk to their children about what they're feeling and why. Because, particularly with young children, these images can create anxiety that manifests itself in sleeping disorders, nightmares, eating disorders . . . if they're not given context by parents."

'IV drip of information'

TV reporter Mike Walter knows a lot about processing such anxiety.

Walter, a former WFLA-Ch.8 anchor who now works for the TV service USA Today Live, saw American Airlines Flight 77 crash into the Pentagon while driving to work. He had to alternate between reporting on the tragedy and relaying his observations as a witness to other news outlets.

He hasn't spent much time revisiting events recently. His tape of CBS's 9/11 documentary sits on a shelf unwatched, and a recent book featuring his comments and recollections from other journalists about that day -- dubbed Covering Catastrophe -- lay in his laundry room for months before he could pick it up.

"It's like a scab -- for those of us who were there and so close and immersed -- and it's kinda being scraped away again (by the memorial coverage)," Walter said. "When it happened, it felt like the TV coverage was on all the time . . . this IV drip of information I was on for days. I'm not sure whether Americans want to go back through that."

For a while afterward, he'd have nightmares of doing something mundane, only to have a plane crash in the middle of it. Like others in his office, he might be talking with a colleague or watching the news, and suddenly break into tears.

"In a war zone, you know you're only going to be there a short time," said Walter, who spent time reporting from war-torn Somalia. "But when you're in a war zone where you live, where do you hide?"

His biggest concern on Wednesday? That network TV's taste for shameless spectacles and its East Coast focus (all the network news divisions are based there) may sour coverage.

"I think it hit (New York-based media) pretty hard . . . it really affected them personally," Walter added. "They don't want the rest of the country to forget what happened. They want the rest of the country to know what it felt like. In some ways, it's going to be overkill but that's what TV is."

Brokaw seemed to confirm Walter's concerns in speaking about the focus of NBC's Sept. 11 coverage. "Across the country, my own strong impression is that there has been a kind of drifting away, if you will, emotionally and intellectually from the events of that day. One (goal) is to remind everyone of what we went through a year ago."

Fox News anchor Shepard Smith is even more blunt: "My hope for that night is that it's all going to be about the heroes who came from that experience," said Smith, who will report from ground zero Wednesday. "If we're serving the public properly that night, we're not spending our time watching those bastards take the building down again."

Local challenges

Locally, journalists face the challenge of distinguishing their stories from the flood of national coverage. Plus, Sept. 11 falls the day after another major news event, the political primary elections.

Most bay area broadcast TV news outlets plan to offer their typical lineup of morning, evening and late night news broadcasts, with WFLA-Ch. 8, Bay News 9 and WTVT-Ch. 13 sending reporters to New York City (calls to WFTS-Ch. 28 were not returned by press time). Lane Michaelsen, news director at WTSP-Ch. 10, said the CBS affiliate passed on sending a reporter to New York City so they could concentrate on Florida-centered stories.

"There's so much available -- everyone was touched by one way or another here -- it's a question of access and what can we bring from New York?" he added, noting the station will also feature 5-minute news breaks during the network's national coverage. "I'd rather dedicate the time to doing stories about people in the Tampa Bay area."

Each outlet has their own approach planned: Bay News 9 news director Rod Fowler said the 24-hour cable newschannel will "have an open mind about other stories besides Sept. 11," referring viewers to corporate partner CNN for in-depth coverage.

WFLA will cut into NBC coverage with a special Sept. 11-themed Oprah episode at 4 p.m. Wednesday and hopes to go commercial-free in local newscasts; Fox station WTVT plans two hours of local coverage at noon Wednesday, including an expanded, one-hour version of its daily talk show segment, "Your Turn."

"I think people will get overloaded on it, if they choose to watch it at all," said Phil Metlin, vice president of news at WTVT. "But it's an important day in American history, and I think every (journalist) is going to be doing their job."

On the radio, WWBA-AM 1040 personality Mark Larsen will head to Manhattan for an expanded, four-hour show Wednesday (on a trip financed by New York tourism officials); WFLA-AM 970 morning host Tedd Webb will also broadcast from New York City. WUSF-FM 89.7 plans to blend local reports with 20 hours of National Public Radio coverage from 5 a.m. Wednesday to 1 a.m. Thursday, while WFLA-AM will cap Wednesday's news coverage with a Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball telecast.

"I made a very conscious decision (that the baseball game would provide) a nice arc for the day," said Sue Treccase, operations manager at WFLA. "When baseball resumed last year, it was the first sign everything was back to normal."

Ask journalists how media has changed since last year, and you'll hear a list: more international news, more concern about reporters' safety abroad, ongoing pressure to tone down critical reporting of government or military plans, that insistent headline ticker at the bottom of most cable news channel screens.

"I think the American public is more in tune with the news . . . (which means) we have to work harder to keep people informed responsibly and in a timely manner," said Mary Lynn Ryan, managing editor at CNN. "It's hard to ignore this was a defining moment in our lives. Other generations had Pearl Harbor; We have Sept. 11."

But for news directors' association president Cochran, the impact of Sept. 11 on the media was much more profound.

"Journalists were reminded and bolstered in what their purpose is," she said. "We had the summer of Gary Condit and sharks and along came this story that couldn't be more in the public interest. Before, journalists were wondering, 'How do you grab an audience that doesn't seem very interested in the news?' Now, you have a much clearer sense of purpose."

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