View from the box

For a day the cable news networks converged. Then they went back to their old tricks.

Topics: CNN, MSNBC, Television,

It was a horrifying sight, a threat against many things we hold dear. It shook one’s soul.

Yes, it was the U.S. Senate setting aside hours Wednesday morning to allow each member two minutes to pontificate on a resolution condemning the destruction of the World Trade Center. The thought of a parade of bloviating politicians at a time like this — “Take that, terrorists! We, portly pork-barrellers all, shall take a podium against thee!” — was nearly too much to bear. But mercifully the cable channels soon turned away. It was a subtle editorial call, but it seemed to be deliberate. Hours later, a CNN reporter noted that the senators were still talking — here he paused for a meaningful silent half second — “though the resolution has already passed.”

For the first days of this dusty, jittery aftermath, the cable channels were virtually indistinguishable, and together they felt bloviation was not appropriate. They had real bravery and real people to film and to talk to: dust-covered survivors, grim rescuers and a lancingly on-point New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Indeed, with the exception of live footage of the president or Giuliani, it seemed like anything the channels broadcast was paired with transfixing, continuous footage of two planes hitting two buildings.

First there was one piece of film of a plane flying toward a building, disappearing into it for an instant, and then bursting — bursting in a way no digital-effects-laden disaster movie could ever have envisioned — in a silent roar out the other side. We watched that one until another appeared, and then another after that. Within six or eight hours there were four or five of them, creating a “Matrix”-like sense of a 360-degree portrait of disaster. By late that evening, East Coast time, footage of the first plane hitting the first building came through as well. During its first showing, we heard the soundtracks too — uncontrolled screaming, and uncontrolled obscenities. A defiant commentator noted that the language seemed appropriate.

President George W. Bush appeared on TV briefly on Day 1, capturing the channels’ attention, and then faded out of our consciousness, it seemed. He began flying around the country, then finally returned to Washington to speak to us again. On Day 2, he was spanked roundly for this peregrination by many pundits, and his staff spent the day furiously spinning behind the scenes; the cable channels dutifully bent over backward to assure us that the president was indeed in danger on Day 1.



It seemed an odd media boomlet — after all, in the hours after the concussions, no one knew for sure if these were not merely the beginning of some even more terrible assault on the country, and why should the president fly into the heart of the uncertainty?

The scenes we kept seeing of the president after that had him spending far too much of his time reassuring us that he was in charge. On Day 3, we saw the most painful footage of all — the president talking on the phone to Giuliani and the governor of New York, George Pataki. “Make no mistake, my resolve is steady and strong!” the president told them.

The image of CNN that first day became the pained look of Judy Woodruff, her face proudly weathered, her intelligence fierce. She talked with a grieving Jeff Greenfield, and their sober miens were buttressed by the quiet and classy features of Bruce Morton, Garrick Utley and Candy Crowley. The confusions of the story were many, but the channel seemed almost never to falter.

Only on Day 3, during a press conference with President George W. Bush, was there a misstep: Just as the president, speaking about the victims and their families, teared up, the camera unaccountably cut away from his face, even as a fusillade of flashbulbs went off. Was the cutaway an accident? A well-meaning but misguided effort to spare the president embarrassment? A producer’s brain seizure?

Over at MSNBC, we are given the sober and quiet Brian Williams. His voice, a bit stentorian, pierces though the dust. But his staff can’t keep up. Lester Holt, a sophisticated recent addition to the channel’s staff, is one of those guys who’s been told to wander around the set during broadcasts; he’s been doing his best to retain his dignity. But on Day 2 he lost the battle.

Intrepidly, he rode a boat over to the closed-off southern tip of Manhattan for what the channel said was the first on-the-scene ground-zero footage. This initiative was spoiled by his ridiculous getup — he was all orange life jacket, hard hat and dust mask. For some of the sequence he actually spoke to the camera through the mask, with predictable results. It would have seemed more dramatic if some of the hundreds of milling workers around him were wearing their masks, too.

Holt’s accouterment difficulties were shared by the supremely irritating Ashleigh Banfield, whom the channel had stationed in Manhattan a few blocks from the disaster scene. Banfield wears expensive glasses and plainly revels in being part of a Very Big Story. With a little Roland Hedley and a lot of Suzanne Stone Maretto — the murderously ambitious newswoman from “To Die For” — in her, Banfield worked the tools of her trade mightily, sporting a surgical mask around her neck. This was soon accessorized by a chic pink air filter mask. On Day 3 she went before the camera again, with these fashion statements accented by a pen behind her ear.

This was the tone of MSNBC. If the network is going to interview a doctor, you can be sure that it will be a blond and comely one. And the reporters quickly become best pals with their sources. One correspondent was interviewed in Florida, piecing together information gleaned from the owner of a flight school some of the alleged terrorists may have trained at. “Rudy told us these guys were clean!” the correspondent gushed. “Rudy” was Rudy Dekker, the owner of the flight school. The pair were apparently already on a first-name basis.

Similarly, on Day 3, Banfield interviewed a doctor on the scene at the World Trade Center wreckage, whom she called “Sue.” Banfield breathlessly dragged out of “Sue” a story about a police dog who had “turned blue.” The medics on the scene gave the pup some oxygen and had him back on its paws in no time, Banfield reported.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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