Friday, September 03, 2010

That Tuesday morning...

Last week, the website WikiLeaks released half a million pager messages that were sent on Sept. 11, 2001. These messages provide a fascinating glimpse back at how people responded in real-time to the terrifying events of that Tuesday morning. While many of the messages are either unrelated to the attacks or simply the incomprehensible techno-babble of automated telecommunications, many others capture the raw emotional flavour of the chaos following the tragedy. People reach out to family and friends to see if they're safe, exchange "I love you" s, inform others who may not have heard about the terrorist acts and express -- often in colourful terms -- their shock and outrage.

The texts make for fascinating reading, and provoke some good discussions of the cliched, "Where were you when it happened?" variety. But a source I've found even more interesting, if chilling, is the Sept. 11 Television Archive (, you can watch television coverage of the event as it happened, starting even before the attacks began. The videos cover the major American broadcasters -- CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox --as well as the BBC. The passage of time has not dulled the horror. It's still as much a kick in the gut as it was eight years ago. Indeed, watching the coverage again this morning, my eyes were glued to the handy little clocks the networks insert into their broadcasts alongside their corporate logos. A literal countdown. It's like watching a tragedy from afar, knowing it's going to happen, but being helpless to stop it. The feeling of dread is still overpowering.

The footage also has a whiff of surreal absurdity about it, something that would be darkly funny were it not so horrid. While the first plane struck at 8:46 that morning, setting the North Tower of the World Trade Center ablaze, the networks carried on with their original programming schedules, unaware that the world had just changed. Particularly awful is the archived footage taken from Fox 5 in Washington, D.C., where a reporter is interviewing a travel agent about cruises for singles looking for love. The segment ends with the reporter, the travel agent and a group of representative lonely hearts belting out the theme from The Love Boat.

Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, thousands of New Yorkers were being forced to choose between leaping from their office windows or burning to death.

While the example of Fox 5 is particularly cringe-inducing, the other networks were little better. CBS' The Early Show had a guest from Gourmet magazine discussing the arrival of fettucini alfredo in America when the North Tower was hit. ABC's Charles Gibson was interviewing Duchess Sarah Ferguson about her weight loss and self-esteem from ABC's studios not far from what had just become Ground Zero. Over at NBC, Katie Couric had just finished interviewing Harry Belafonte and Matt Lauer had begun an incredibly awkward talk with a far-too-enthusiastic author hawking his new biography of Howard Hughes when Lauer suddenly broke away and cut to commercial before delivering the somber news.

It's hard to reconcile the weight 9/11 holds in our civilization's collective consciousness with the utterly irrelevent fluff that was considered news when the world awoke that morning. Everyone recalls not just the day's events, but the total hysteria of the days that followed. It was all-catastrophe, all-the-time, and it went on week after week. The footage before news of the attacks breaks is a peek back to a lost era, not necessarily better, but certainly more innocent. It can't be said that the attacks changed the nature of our media's obsession with the trivial; the interviews with television and music stars that came just moments before the attacks would not seem at all out of place today.

There are other fascinating moments in the footage. The very genesis of many of the wackier 9/11 conspiracy theories can be found in the confused, panicky broadcasts (Was it a bomb? A missile? No, it was a plane, but a small plane!). It's also interesting to compare how the anchors responded to the attacks. CBS's Bryant Gumbel seems completely overwhelmed, unable to grasp that the collisions were deliberate, despite detailed reports from eyewitnesses who make it clear that the planes manoeuvred directly into the towers. Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer at ABC are much quicker, with Gibson saying almost immediately after the second impact that a "concerted effort to attack" America was underway.

As illuminating as these other issues are, however, it's still hard to get past the first minutes of the attacks, while reporters and hosts babble pleasantly through their morning shows, contentedly ignorant that the course of history was being changed forever, in some cases a mere handful of city blocks away.

Matt Gurney is a member of the National Post editorial board

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