Television yesterday took America on a marvelous journey of remembrance, sorrow, symbolism and resolution.
The road of coverage was a long and bumpy one that at times during the afternoon did not seem well planned at some networks and cable channels. But collectively, by the end of the day, it linked those of us watching at home straight to the heart of our national civic life, and that is television serving one of its most profound cultural functions.
The next time someone tells you about the news media's short attention span or utter lack of memory, tell them about the coverage of Sept. 11, 2002, and the way network television stopped the culture cold for more than 16 hours, offering us an informed, moving and generally thoughtful space in which to re-experience and contemplate the events of a year ago.
In large part, it was mainly a matter of pointing the cameras and microphones in the right direction and getting out of the way of eloquent ceremonies that resonated back to the battlefield of Gettysburg and beyond in shared memory.
It started at 1 a.m. yesterday as bagpipers in each of New York City's five boroughs began their solemn processions down to Ground Zero, the ground on which the World Trade Center towers once stood.
The mournful sounds of the bagpipes and the pictures of New Yorkers silently joining in this pre-dawn parade of sorrow didn't need words from the first wave of reporters and commentators.
By the time the ceremony at Ground Zero began, the first-string anchors and commentators - the big-time chatterers - were in place. But they showed uncommon restraint.
For once, they seemed to understand that their feelings and thoughts were not as important as viewers being allowed to hear the roll call of the dead as Yo-Yo Ma and a string quartet laid down a somber musical underpinning that cast the moment on that dust-blown patch of desolation called The Pit in the model of the Holocaust.
It was mostly the same during ceremonies at the Pentagon and then in a field in Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed after passengers rose up against the terrorists who took over the flight.
But NBC couldn't resist going to pre-packaged features filled with correspondent-talk whenever the ceremonies were deemed to be too slow-moving by television standards.
The worst was a report taking us back to the Florida elementary school that President Bush was visiting last September when he received word of the attacks. It was a maddening disruption of the sacred mood that had been so delicately set at the Ground Zero ceremony.
'Importance of silence'
This is not to say the commentators didn't do some good work. ABC's Peter Jennings has moved into a league of his own in establishing a tone of informed authority on special events coverage.
Katie Couric did a nice job of placing NBC's coverage within the larger cultural context: "It's about the importance of ceremony, the importance of things like tolling bells, historical symbols, the importance of silence at a time like this."
She and Tim Russert discussed the significance of the president's day ending with Bush speaking to the nation from New York City with the Statue of Liberty, perhaps our most potent national symbol, behind his right shoulder. The winning coverage plan: Follow the president.
While anyone who expected sharp political critique yesterday was clearly in the wrong place, the networks did do more than concentrate on remembrance.
During the afternoon, ABC and NBC covered town hall meetings during which critical and angry voices were heard on such issues as survivor compensation.
Nor is it accurate to talk about television coverage as if it were all networks, though the networks with their veteran anchors do seem to have elbowed CNN and other all-news cable operations off the big-dog run on this one.
There was noteworthy niche programming on cable, such as CNBC's morning interviews with various chief executive officers offering their opinion on Sept. 11 from within the business culture.
And WorldLink on satellite television offered its 18 million viewers quite a contrast, with coverage of Iranian officials explaining events of Sept. 11 as the result of American imperialism. WorldLink also covered the German Protestant bishop who used the pulpit of a ceremony intended to be pro-American to denounce Bush and the United States for threatening to invade Iraq.
We need that kind of diversity in a free society, and we especially need more of it in our television.
But yesterday, I have to admit, I was happy to climb aboard the network train of ceremony and ritual as it followed our president on a national journey of remembrance for those who died and a rededication for those alive.