Covering the Horror

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2 P.M. -- Three observations as the horror of the worst terrorist attack in American history continues to unfold.

1) The local affiliates are a hindrance. CBS, NBC, and ABC were almost unwatchable at times, because the local affiliates insisted on taking control of their own newscasts. With several Manhattan blocks in flames and the Pentagon smoldering in Arlington, Virginia, local viewers were subjected to such trivia as updates on the Mass Pike and the MBTA, and the release of "nonessential" workers from the State House. To be sure, the origin of several of the terrorist flights — Logan Airport — makes this a huge local story, and it will be fascinating to see what Boston news organizations do with this in the days and weeks to come. But localization hit bottom when the Boston stations carried Governor Jane Swift's well-meaning but news-free press conference live, even as CNN was broadcasting a crucial news conference called by the Taliban's foreign minister.

2) The media are acting responsibly. With elected officials such as Senator Chuck Hagel justifiably calling this "another Pearl Harbor," it must be difficult for the always-jumpy media to refrain from escalating tensions even further. Yet, even though commentators have properly noted that international terrorist Osama bin Laden must be considered a prime suspect, care is being taken not to get ahead of the story. "Nobody knows who's responsible for this," said CBS's Dan Rather shortly before 1 p.m. And when his colleague Bob Schiefer talked about the "rage" that was being felt in the streets of Washington, Rather replied, "It's one thing to have all that rage; it's another thing to know where to direct that rage." This is a considerable improvement over the first hours after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when various so-called experts were quick to point the finger at Middle Eastern terrorists, only to have to swallow their words when the conspiracy turned out to be homegrown.

3) The media are reacting rather than reporting. For every reporter, anchor, and commentator who's working today, this is the biggest story he or she has ever covered -- and, it is to be hoped, ever will cover. In scanning around CNN, MSNBC, and the major networks, it appears that the media are doing an admirable job of remaining calm and trying to offer facts rather than unfounded speculation. But the atmosphere is too emotional and charged for anyone to step back and simply offer a 10- or 15-minute newscast pulling together everything that has happened. As a result, viewers are subjected to visions of horror but not much context, making it difficult to grasp the whole awful story. To be sure, this is a story that is best followed live. But a recap at the top of every hour would make it easier to follow.

Dan Kennedy is the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix.

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