Those were just some of the questions we faced when deciding whether to replay NBC’s 9/11 coverage when I was General Manager of MSNBC back in 2006. As I watched MSNBC air that coverage for a sixth year today, many of those same questions remain.
It wasn’t an easy call. After retrieving the tapes and watching the first four hours from that morning, beginning with the “reports” of a plane crash, it was clear the coverage from the morning was beyond mesmerizing. Seeing the events unfold in real time on television forces us to relive those emotions and feelings moment by moment. In the initial minutes we retain a glimmer of hope that maybe – just maybe – it isn’t quite as bad as it seems. As time passes, however, those shooting pains re-emerge as each terrifying detail of the morning unfolds, ultimately leading to the conclusion that it is that bad, and worse. The NBC anchor and reporting team handled it as well as anyone could have hoped. They were careful, methodical, at times overtly saddened but always calm.
I knew people would watch the replay, but when dealing with 9/11 we all knew the decision could not and would not be one based on ratings. The question had to be, is it the right thing to do?
Some have called it gruesome or ghoulish, even referring to it as “death porn“. Maybe so, but it also really happened. New York City is spending well over a half billion dollars to create a memorial to ensure we never forget that day. What better way to assure that happens, than by watching the event, as it happened for most, on television? It’s powerful and disturbing because it’s so real. Simply put, there is no way to sanitize that day, and to do so would be a disservice.
That does not mean the country was ready for the replay in the first couple of years after 9/11. The difference? In 2003, for example, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were getting underway, 9/11 was still effectively news, not history. At what point does that definition change? It’s tough to say. In 2006, 9/11 was not being covered or discussed nearly as often and it had just started to feel it was fading into the background for many.
No one was forced to watch MSNBC coverage. I watched it for the fourth year in a row. Many others will have chosen to change the channel. But in a world where cable news is often consumed with internecine and sometimes invented squabbles, seeing one of the most important moments in American history as it aired, in real time, seems to be exactly what cable news can and should do best.
Ed. Note – This post was first published two years ago, September 11th, 2009. We have decided to republish in commemoration of the tenth year anniversary of the September 11th attacks and in the wake of the media’s decision this year to dedicate even more time to looking back at 9/11 (including MSNBC once again re-airing NBC News’ coverage of the event itself).
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