TV revisits raw images of terror

The Baltimore Sun

Roger Leonard couldn't take it anymore.

The coverage of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, drumming relentlessly on TV sets everywhere yesterday and splashed across every front page, was too much to bear. Leonard, a retired, 26-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department, said he cried Sunday night while watching Ted Koppel's 90-minute documentary, The Price of Security, on the Discovery Channel.

By the time he stopped by for lunch yesterday at Tyson Place, a restaurant in Mount Vernon, he had had enough of mourning. "You can only take so much disappointment," he said, sitting at the bar, a TV set nearby displaying Fox News Channel's coverage of President Bush meeting relatives of the dead in Shanksville, Pa. "I've seen so much tragedy. I'll never understand why we have to dwell on horror and death."

Leonard's response to the coverage seemed typical among TV watchers yesterday and illustrated what was perhaps a wider weariness of the terrible events of five years ago. While countless people -- including survivors of the attacks, relatives of the dead and the simply empathetic -- flocked to mournful, poignant memorial services in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, millions across the country turned on televisions, if only for a few minutes, to relive the grimly fascinating spectacle of the attacks.

Networks and cable outlets outdid themselves in reviewing the tragedy and in analyzing lessons learned -- or ignored. Among the many offerings, MSNBC rebroadcast that morning's Today show, during which an unbelieving Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw could be seen coming to terms with the scope of the disaster as a camera trained on the World Trade Center showed the towers -- first one, later the other -- crumbling into oblivion; the History Channel showed a documentary, The Day the Towers Fell, about the photographers who put their lives in peril to document the attacks in Manhattan, and the harrowing pictures that resulted; CBS News went live with coverage of the reading of the victims' names yesterday at Ground Zero, during which the Baltimore affiliate, WJZ, abruptly switched to a typically vitriolic edition of Maury Povich's talk show; and CNN delivered a repetitive explanation of an incident yesterday in which a San Francisco-bound United Airlines jet was diverted to Dallas after an unclaimed backpack and a BlackBerry were found on board.

"It's definitely overdone," Errick Armes, a 35-year-old electrician, said as he sat at the bar at Rocky Run Tap & Grill in Charles Village. "You're giving them power by talking about it, the so-called al-Qaida. If we keep doing this, the whole nation stops. We didn't have this much coverage a year after it happened. I'd like to see if we have this much hype five years after Katrina."

Bronwyn Akeley, a 25-year-old bartender who had just served Armes a midday beer, saw even less value in recent films like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass' United 93, both inspired by the attacks.

"The coverage is almost like exploiting a national tragedy," she said as three TV sets in the bar beamed CNN's coverage of the anniversary. "I guess it makes sense for a news station like CNN to go into all this, to see how it relates to today. But as far as movies being made about it so close to when it happened, it seems sort of tacky."

At the liquor store next door, Eddie's Gourmet Shoppe, employee Bryson Dudley, 29, was equally dismissive of the films but more forgiving of television's treatment of the anniversary. "You have to do this -- you can't just ignore it," he said as a set above rows of wine bottles showed smoke billowing over Manhattan. "It's more appropriate than the movies. They came a little early."

Dudley's colleague Alex Entezami, 26, said the Sept. 11 attacks are "tattooed in America's psyche now," an unavoidable part of life and television.

"I just hope," he said, "that 10 years from now people won't forget what happened, like Pearl Harbor."

Their boss, Arnold Greenberg, 70, said there had been so much coverage of Sept. 11 that he could not help but be sad.

"You're always seeing it on the anniversary," said Greenberg, whose accountant in New York lost his wife, a mother of two, in the World Trade Center. "Enough years have gone by that each year it's a little bit easier, but it's certainly not an upper."

Either way, viewers should be cautious about how much Sept. 11 anniversary coverage they watch, said Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue University who studies how frightening images affect people's health.

"It's the story of all stories," he said in a telephone interview. "There's a lot of fascination with what happened behind the scenes, so people are naturally attracted to the story on the fifth anniversary. But in that process, they're seeing the raw images -- the buildings on fire, the towers collapsing, the smoke billowing out, people in distress. Those were the images that triggered the initial emotional reactions, and people may be unprepared for how those images can alter their mood again. The intense emotionality of this story can be quite jolting."

Sparks said he was struck Saturday with how upset his wife had become upon hearing a National Public Radio story about a woman, accompanied by her mother, who was traveling to Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 2001, to help her daughter move into college. The older women were on one of the ill-fated flights.

Sparks found his wife sobbing. "That was such a sad story," she explained to him through her tears.

At Tyson Place, bartender Penny Lorio said she understood people's desire to revisit the tragedy.

"We've done some reminiscing already," she said, pointing to the handful of regulars at the bar. "It's the Kennedy moment of this generation, isn't it?"

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