CBS will repeat its powerful documentary, simply titled 9/11, one night before the fifth anniversary of one of the most traumatic and life-altering events of our times. The film, by two French filmmakers who just happened to be chronicling the day-to-day life of a New York Fire Department unit, is one of the most affecting pieces of television in memory.
Quite accidentally, the filmmakers shot the first plane slamming into the World Trade Center, then followed as the firemen raced to the horrible scene. CBS will show it with people using words that, in another context, would likely trigger a huge fine from the FCC, but it's not turning that decision into an opportunity to make a political statement on the profanity crackdown. Good call.
That's about as far as our trust of the media's commemoration of 9/11 goes, unfortunately. The business of journalism includes marking anniversaries with “special” programs. Many of the upcoming showcase presentations seem properly somber. Our problem is with the incidental side stories and especially with the promotion. The lasting images of 9/11 are the buildings burning and falling and scenes of men and women frantically running. When programmers promote their specials, they will be tempted to show those images.
We strongly advise against it.
A few days after 9/11, ABC News instructed producers to avoid overusing the 9/11 imagery. Others followed. But as years have passed, we're once again seeing that destructive image more often and noticing overuse of words like “horror” and “terror” on broadcast- and cable- television news reports. It's cheap and thoughtless.
All Americans were scarred by 9/11. Even now, in New York at least, too many sirens make people jittery. Playing on these emotions may attract a viewer's attention, but it detracts from TV's reputation.
What the fifth anniversary of 9/11 should be is a time to reflect on lives lost and a way of life altered, not a day to constantly replay the images that made it so, images already burned into that collective consciousness.
This advice to pundits and bloggers: Let's not reduce 9/11 commemoratives to mere vehicles for rating news personalities. Katie Couric, new at CBS, will anchor a documentary, Five Years Later: How Safe Are We? Pick another time to remark cattily on gravitas or Gucci.
The events of 9/11 should never be used as a tool—marketing, political or otherwise. That's'a warning that applies to all who try to tread that fine line between memorial and programming opportunity.
As TV networks prepare their various tributes, recaps, and perspectives, they must not turn the day into the TV equivalent of Veteran's Day, where capitalizing on an economic opportunity—insert “ratings”—has converted the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives into a chance to sell a few more mattresses and minivans.