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Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001


Documenting an unprecedented disaster

Crises, it is often said, bring out the best and the worst in people. In the case of the terrorist attacks that took place in the United States on Tuesday, the best was illustrated by citizens waiting five hours to donate blood, while the worst was exemplified by service stations gouging customers for gasoline and those customers threatening violence in return.

Crises bring out the best and worst in the media, as well. The varied coverage that appeared in Salon.com and the online edition of the Village Voice (though the banner headline, "The Bastards!", was, I think, a bad idea: The first thing it made me think of was "South Park") provided a street- level view of the tragedy as well as balanced analysis of the political and economic ramifications.

But print and Internet stories do not approach TV for the kind of immediacy we demand when such stories break. We want to know right away the extent of the damage, how many people were killed, who is responsible and how something like this could happen.

NHK's BS1 ran ABC's coverage almost continually for more than a full day, both with and without Japanese interpretation, which led me to believe that the network was actually thinking about the foreign community. Diane Sawyer's unnecessary dramatics and Peter Jennings' occasional lapses into patronizing generalizations were offset by the matter-of-fact professionalism of Charles Gibson and John Miller. In any case, one was grateful for the steady stream of up-to-the-minute information.

Understandably, the local TV news media, which also broadcast coverage of the attack almost continually, were behind the information curve; in some cases way behind.

Right after the attack on the World Trade Center, it took time for the newsrooms to adjust to the pace and get their facts and terms straight. For close to an hour, Asahi TV kept referring to Washington's Dulles Airport as "Dallas" airport and seemed to have trouble distinguishing the various airlines involved.

Once they caught up, however, they had to give shape to the news they were reporting and not just reiterate what their New York and Washington bureau chiefs had received from official sources and American news programs.

The original content was usually less than enlightening. In Japan, on-site reporters are not necessarily expected to get new or pertinent information on their own. It is enough that they give the appearance of trying to get this information. That is why, during typhoons, you often see reporters standing in driving wind and rain reading their copy.

Fuji TV, for example, repeatedly ran a video clip of one of its female reporters running away from the collapsing World Trade Center. Since the cameraman was busy pulling the reporter, who was screaming incoherently, out of harm's way, viewers didn't see anything except the hysterical woman. Another female reporter stood outside a makeshift morgue hoping to interview firemen who had just learned about fallen comrades. Of course, the firemen, who were in shock, had little to say to her, so all we really saw was her crying.

Back home, reporters were dispatched to the various American bases to get comments from servicemen entering the facilities. The soldiers were not allowed to talk about their work, so the reporters asked them safe, meaningless questions. "What do you think of terrorism?" one buzz-cut soldier, who looked to be about 15, was asked. "I think it's pretty terrible," he answered.

But the most popular means of filling air time is video collages: snippets of dramatic tape sequences spliced together, with or without narration. These collages have become such a ubiquitous fixture on news shows everywhere in the world that the informational content has become subordinate to the production. Japanese news collages about terrorists were accompanied by ominous techno soundtracks, just in case you forgot to feel the way you're supposed to.

No collage is shown without images of airplanes flying into buildings. Much has been said about how the world changed forever on Tuesday, but what really changed is the way we engage the world. Manhattan is the communications center of the world. In New York, if something isn't recorded in some shape or form, it didn't happen.

The technology that shaped our perception of this particular incident is the camcorder. We were able to see the horrifying image of not one, but two jets flying into the Twin Towers, and from every conceivable angle. Almost all of these videos were taken by amateurs, some of whom have become instant celebrities.

These images, which, both here and in the States, are shown over and over, in endless combinations, are incredible in and of themselves.

On Thursday, ABC's Peter Jennings interviewed a child psychologist, who said that very young children, seeing these images again and again, may not be able to understand that the attack happened only once. I've seen them dozens of times, and every time I do it feels like the first.

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