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Networks struggle to fill time tastefully

By Suzanne C. Ryan and Mark Jurkowitz, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

It was a day of high and low points on television yesterday as broadcast networks aired both poignant memorial services and excessive, ill-timed feature stories on everything from anthrax to peace in the Middle East.

Industry observers had predicted that the unprecedented schedule of 16 hours of nonstop coverage was more than most Americans would ever want on a day of commemoration and reflection. The extent of the coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC also revealed a familiar weakness: When there's that much time to fill, it will often be filled with material that's less than television's best. It was no surprise that the morning's solemn coverage turned by afternoon to, at times, a forum for family members to vent frustrations about compensation funds.

NBC's ''Today,'' ABC's ''Good Morning America,'' and CBS's ''The Early Show'' all began their 7 a.m. broadcasts with appropriate restraint. The footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers was aired briefly, and the interviews with victims' families were conducted tastefully.

One exception came when ABC's Diane Sawyer asked a widow if it was ''unbearable'' to hear the recording of her late husband's last phone call and then proceeded to hold the widow's baby in her lap. And NBC made the bizarre decision to advertise one of its new fall entertainment shows, ''American Dreams,'' on what was a largely commmercial-free day.

Once the memorial services began at ground zero, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, however, the anchors curtailed their scripts and mostly fell silent, allowing images to tell the story. It was a day when politicians, in particular, were called upon to comfort and to express patriotism. In New York, Governor George Pataki, like many who spoke yesterday, chose someone else's words to convey loss; in his case, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York, followed by civilian volunteers, then began a moving tribute, a somber reading of the names of every victim.

Simultaneously at the Pentagon, President Bush delivered a rousing speech to military personnel about the need to remember every life that was lost last year. ''The terrorists chose their target hoping to demoralize this country. They failed,'' he said.

Later, in Boston, Senator Edward M. Kennedy told family members, ''We mourn them for the years - there were too few - and the hopes unfulfilled. To those left behind, I know something of what you feel. To see them torn out of the fabric of life is almost more than one can bear ... but we move on because we have to, because they would want us to.''

At ground zero, as hundreds of victims' family members lined up amid swirling plumes of dust to place flowers and flags on the memorial called the Circle of Honor, a clearly moved Dan Rather proclaimed, ''This is one of those occasions when television doesn't do justice to the scene.''

Some of the most memorable footage yesterday occurred at Faneuil Hall as local affiliates dropped network programming to cover the state's salute to its victims. Strikingly, all the family members who spoke used historical speeches to make their points. Haleema Salie, who lost her daughter and son-in-law on Flight 11, quoted John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.

By midafternoon, however, the tone of coverage shifted noticeably. The morning collage of memorials, tears, music, chiming bells, and waving flags gave way to more standard fare.

With Rather at the helm, CBS aired a series of pieces, from the attacks' impact on air travel to the likelihood of bioterror assaults on America. ABC's afternoon reporting focused on the attacks' effect on civil liberties, the entertainment industry, and the culture itself. Leading into a story that concluded that America had regained both its sense of humor and its appetite for violent movies, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings declared: ''Those people who predicted a major transformation of American culture. Wrong.''

In a way, those sentiments were proved true during NBC's afternoon town meeting, where Tom Brokaw was the moderator. What began as a conversation about how much America had changed in the last year evolved into a raucous debate between the special master of the Victim Compensation Fund and bereaved family members complaining that the compensation system was unfair and insufficient.

It wasn't exactly the ''Jerry Springer'' show. But with victims' families shouting and applauding - and with money taking center stage on a day of solemn commemoration - it was a clear affirmation that American culture had not been fundamentally changed by the events of a year ago.

This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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