- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Chitchat, murmuring, mewling and talk, talk, talk: The minute of silence was about the only silence during yesterday's cavalcade of televised intrusions on the September 11 anniversary.

In many cases, the solemn moments of the day were interrupted by news anchors advising viewers they were either watching or about to watch a moment of silence.

"This underscores the importance of silence at a moment like this," NBC's Katie Couric said as her network reluctantly ceded 60 seconds of airtime to the ground zero event unfolding at 8:46 a.m., marking the time the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

Even in "silence," there was no silence: The persistent clicking of mechanical camera drives from still photographers could be heard punctuating the seconds.

Like many of the camera correspondents, Miss Couric wore funeral black on a day when first lady Laura Bush chose to wear a simple gray suit. CBS' Dan Rather made sure to reassure his audience that "silence is an eloquent statement."

Indeed, silence could have proved golden during the 90-odd hours of programming from broadcast and cable networks yesterday. It was a rare commodity.

Sobering, compelling live images were plentiful, though often jammed together on a triple-split screen. Still, the networks deserve some kudos for their prowess in broadcasting live from multiple locations.

Drone-free moments rarely stood alone as unvarnished content; news producers (reporters, in everyday English) have yet to learn that silent or unembellished airtime is not necessarily "dead" airtime.

Some decorum was lacking as well. ABC's Peter Jennings spoke over the reading of victims' names at ground zero, eventually concluding, "A lot of people don't understand grieving on TV." The grieving spoke "of the eloquence of the common man," said fellow anchor John Gibson. Unfortunately, the common man couldn't get a word in edgewise.

For the most part, networks dulled their partisanship. No one picked at President Bush's daytime speeches, reserving that for his evening message before the nation last night.

CBS was the sole network to make constructive use of the "crawl" on the bottom of the screen. In a labor-intensive effort, the network flashed the age and photographs of most of the 2,801 people who died at the Twin Towers as their names were read.

Reacting to criticism in previous weeks, broadcasters picked their themes with care. It was "America Remembers" at MSNBC, CNN, ABC and CBS, though MSNBC also threw "Honor and Healing" into the mix. ABC also offered "Pride and Pain." Nobody offered "closure." Fox News went with "The Day America Changed."

After criticism from mental health groups, the networks judiciously avoided images of aircraft striking the towers. None were shy, however, about showing the collapse of the buildings from myriad angles, several times an hour. Though they prefaced the image with a warning, CNN showed a still photograph of the desperate dropping from the towers.

"We are trying to be careful in how we use these," CNN's Aaron Brown said.

Networks also made much ado about advertising-free programming. The policy was obviously up to the discretion of local affiliates, however. By 8:15 a.m. in Washington, viewers had the opportunity to grieve to the accompaniment of garish ads for dog food, a circus, furniture, home improvements and telephone service.


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