Chaotic scene unfolds on national television

Sun Television Critic

A bit past noon yesterday, a Syracuse University scholar professorcarried on an Associated Press program on WEAA-FM marveled bitterly aboutthe spectacle pulled off yesterday by the unknown terrorists.

The first hijacked plane striking the World Trade Center, she said,did so to capture the attention of the media in the media capital of theworld. Video cameras then were unwittingly in place to capture the secondsavage crash.

From Manhattan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, the day was filled withvivid images of violence. And the networks, cable news channels and localstations provided blanket coverage.

ABC News' Peter Jennings and new CNN hire Aaron Brown steered their broadcasts ably through a wrenching time. After the second tower collapsed, a shaken Jennings said: "Wherever you are in the United States or the world today, the landscape of New York City has just changed."

CNN proved the mettle of its international coverage with exclusive footage from avideophone last night of explosions in downtown Kabul, Afghanistan. Their source of the blasts was not immediately known.

NBC's Andrea Mitchell, a savvy reporter, provided a tough-mindedassessment: "This is obviously the largest intelligence failure since PearlHarbor."

CBS' primary anchor, Dan Rather, took pains to distinguish betweenwhat he knew from what he did not know. Even so, all the networks wereforced to correct themselves on mistaken information throughout the day -but that comes with the territory in reporting live on breaking news.

CBS also did well to interview Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born JohnsHopkins scholar who studies Arab and Muslim culture and politics. It was asmart move on a day when many jumped to indict terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. His picture was shown repeatedly yesterday morning on severalnetworks, initially based on little more than circumstantial evidence. Thenetworks could have explained the basis of such references.

All in all, however, the grown-ups in broadcast journalism provedthemselves yesterday. There were, however, less glorious moments.

During the raw minutes following the crashes, a callow reporter forthe Fox News Station stopped someone just outside the what was then thecrippled but sole standing World Trade Center building. The man, whoappeared to be a New York City safety official, was confronted with thestereotypical TV question: "How are you doing?"

"How does it look like I'm doing?" the man snapped back, as heattempted to return to his frantic conversation on his walkie-talkie. Untilthat moment, the reporter was simply doing his job. When he persisted,however, the official said sharply: "We've got people in there. We've gotto go - we've got to get them out."

Television had to rely on reports from correspondents on telephones,as camera shots from the ground near the terrorist sites in Washington andNew York initially were hard to come by.

Viewers routinely were asked to absorb three streams of information -the video, voices, and captions all over the screen - that often were aboutdifferent aspects of the day. It was at once bewildering and informative.That was scrambled further by the local stations, which often superimposedtheir own captions over the network data.

Local morning show hosts stayed on the air well past the end of theprograms. Several Baltimore journalists headed down to report from thePentagon, which made sense given the close ties many Marylanders have withgovernment and military agencies.

Press conferences with city and state officials were broadcast,information on school and office closings helpfully doled out - all in all,a worthwhile performance.

And yet, at the same time, some folks just couldn't stop themselves.At WJZ (Channel 13), anchors didn't simply read public statements orbulletins from public figures - say, Cardinal William Keeler's statement ofmourning. Instead, it was always "Eyewitness News has learned."

Indeed, the words "Eyewitness News Live!" often appeared in giantletters on the station's broadcast, almost eclipsing the CBS footage fromthe sites of the terrorist attacks. While other stations promotedthemselves too, none descended to quite those depths during this time ofconfusion and loss.

Although the shots of the planes striking the tower were almost tooastonishing to be believed, CBS News carried a picture a bit later of asmaller scene that was perhaps even more telling. As the network'scorrespondents spoke, a camera showed people milling about several blocksfrom the base of the crippled second tower. As smoke and dust billowed,someone, presumably a cameraman, leaned over and wiped clear the front ofthe lens.

And then people started running, then racing, frantically, whippingby the lens as the ash enveloped the area. The camera was tipped over and,for a second or two, the network broadcast only blackness. It was atelevised glimpse into the terror that must have been felt by thousands ofAmericans yesterday.

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