The high-profile documentary dealing with the Sept. 11 attacks that CBS will air next month has raised a classic journalistic clash between strong public interest and concerns of victims' families.
Relatives of victims have asked that certain footage be omitted—particularly the dramatic ground-level view of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.
The two-hour March 10 special, to be introduced by actor Robert DeNiro, will feature video from filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, who had been making a documentary about New York City firefighters when the planes struck. The project is being produced by the Naudet brothers, along with senior network staffers Susan Zirinsky, Hal Gessner and Tom Forman, and Vanity Fair
magazine editors Graydon Carter and David Friend.
In a letter, victims' group The Massachusetts 9/11 Fund asked CBS President Les Moonves to "reconsider its decision to televise that portion of the video which contains footage of the moments when the airplanes crashed into the twin towers."
Some footage of the first crash was aired on CBS shortly after the disasters, but the group feared that new footage showing people who may not have escaped the collapse could "revictimize" family members.
Similarly, Christie Coombs, widow of a Flight 11 passenger, asked CBS to refrain from airing the "violent, horrifying fate of Flight 11." The footage, she said, may give CBS "some bragging rights and perhaps increased viewership. It may be captivating to some, but it is horrifying to others."
A few days after Sept. 11, ABC News President David Westin won some praise for announcing that news producers would limit showing video of the planes' hitting the towers. Generally, other news organizations also limited the footage aired.
The footage in this documentary is different because it has not been seen before and includes scenes inside the towers as rescuers arrived.
CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz acknowledged receiving several dozen messages and said the network is sensitive to them. But he suggested that, while it's appropriate for the families to question the content, those looking for the network to refrain from using troubling footage may well be disappointed.
He said the program is largely about the chaos surrounding the event and the heroism of New York firefighters—with the added drama that each brother recording the event believed that the other had been killed.
"We will not be exploitative," Schwartz said, and the footage used will not show a lot of carnage. However, he added, the impact of the tragedy "should not be softened." The Naudets' video "is of enormous historical and cultural importance. It's extremely important for the truth to be told and to be kept in the public eye."
"To some extent, you weigh these issues every time you make a journalistic choice," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But the stakes are usually not this high. It's a classic and difficult balance. But it's possible that there is a public good in showing the contents of the film that will also be traumatic to some people."