Television coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath has been deeply troubling. While it is appropriate that major networks have preempted commercials, these same TV news operations resorted to entertainment conventions that exploit the dramatic elements of the tragedy.
The first day of coverage was TV news at its best: on-the-fly, unchoreographed reporting that echoed Edward R. Murrow's radio dispatches from London during World War II. Caught off-guard with a breaking story of unprecedented gravity, reporters and anchors rose to the occasion.
In the confusion of Day 1, the networks got some facts wrong, but the coverage seemed real, the reporting thorough and unfiltered. Even the frequent repetition of videos of the attacks and footage shot from different angles was beyond reproach. After all, many people were tuning in for the first time throughout the day. Hard as it was to watch the videos, those additional angles were important to see.
But by the end of Day 2, networks were setting slow-motion, digitally altered images of the attacks to music. FOX News Channel uses an image of the North Tower crumbling as a background frame to its coverage. The picture is tinted blue and enhanced to appear grainy. Set to music, it conjures the type of rudimentary surveillance video one might see on a reality show or a tabloid exposé.
Why do they create and use this footage? For the same reason most TV news programs repeatedly aired the same pictures of Chandra Levy and Gary Condit. Voyeurism entertains. It's enough that TV has replayed the tragedies countless times since the event. While these endless replays may have been important the first day, are they still newsworthy days later? Or are they exploitative?