Live TV captures tragic moments in America’s history

Only twice in memory had such a shocking moment in history been captured live on television — the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 and the explosion of the Challenger in 1987. But even those two horrific events paled in comparison to the powerful sight of an airliner plowing into a tower of the World Trade Center a few minutes after the morning television talk shows began showing pictures of another tower that had previously been struck by a plane. Then, within an hour, came the pictures of the two towers collapsing, as if they had been precisely rigged to implode for a disaster movie, and subsequently the harrowing scenes of crowds running from clouds of lethal debris. Throughout the day, news anchors and political leaders compared the events of the day to Pearl Harbor. But clearly Sept. 11, 2001 would be a day to outdo Dec. 7, 1941 in infamy.

The major networks cancelled their regular programming and pooled resources to broadcast images of the catastrophe to the world. Ironically, many New Yorkers were unable to watch what was happening in their own city since the collapse of the WTC brought down the tower on which most of the New York’s TV transmitters were mounted. WCBS-TV, the CBS-owned station, was eventually able to switch to a backup transmitter on the Empire State Building, but most New Yorkers were forced to rely on cable and direct-broadcast satellite systems. Technical problems abounded. With many other communications systems also brought down during the collapse, anchors in studios found it difficult communicating with reporters in the field. Even when President Bush appeared on television from the White House at 8:30 p.m., he sat staring into the camera for about 15 seconds before speaking, presumably because of another technical hitch.

Many cable networks and the “fifth” over-the-air networks, UPN and The WB, scrapped their regular programming and instead carried the feeds of sibling news outlets. As businesses and government offices closed throughout the country, many people headed for home — and their television sets — creating what was likely to have been the biggest TV audience in history. (Today’s Washington Post observed that the CBS affiliate in Washington D.C. apparently regarded the New York events “incredibly enough, as a local story and reported it initially as if it were a winter snow day and school closings were of the utmost importance.”)

The calamity will likely affect television programming for days to come. Most networks said that they will continue to devote full-time attention to the aftermath of the attacks for the indefinite future. (As of this morning (Tuesday), the news coverage remained commercial-free.) The Emmy Awards show, scheduled for this Sunday, was called off. (David Angell, a writer and exec producer of Frasier and one of this year’s Emmy nominees, was a passenger aboard one of the crashed airliners).) So were the Latin Grammys. Movies that depicted terrorist plots were yanked off the network schedules. A meeting of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), which had been scheduled to open in Nashville today (Wednesday), was canceled, because “the members of RTNDA feel a deep obligation to serve the public in this time of national crisis” and because the nation’s airports had been shut down.

While public officials were reluctant to assess the extent of the damage and, almost to a man, limited their remarks to solemn platitudes, the television anchors began giving voice to some of the anger and distress that many of their viewers were no doubt experiencing. NBC’s Tom Brokaw wondered aloud how, after spending billions of dollars on national security, four hijackings could occur at three different airports within minutes of one another. Peter Jennings on ABC repeatedly asked officials — without receiving a definitive reply — “How could this happen here?” Alone among the anchors, Jennings also observed that while Americans were quick to denounce what had occurred as the work of evil men, Arab fanatics regarded this country as the very fount of evil and had declared their willingness to die, in the name of God, to put an end to it.