On suffering and human eloquence: commemorating 9/11, televised U.S. coverage in 2011

by Isabel Pinedo

The attack on 9/11 2001 was a media event, aimed at national landmarks, designed to be televised, photographed, seen as a spectacle. The anniversary commemorations have been high profile media events since 2002, intended to build community, but haunted by the question of how much to show—“is it too soon?”— and how to avoid the appearance of exploitation. The tenth anniversary in 2011 coincided with the death of Osama Bin Laden, the near-completion of the Freedom Tower, the opening of the Memorial site to the public, and the year that some families returned to Ground Zero for the first time since 2002. In addition to recycling iconic images in commemorative programming, the networks attempted to resignify 9/11 in the public imagination as a moment of rebirth and closure. Television networks aired over 40 commemorative programs in the week leading up to September 11th, providing competing frameworks through which the country could remember the attack.

How do we narrate disaster to ourselves? More to the point, how does television commemorate a catastrophic moment in recent American history without alienating audience? Networks responded with programs that used different narrative modes. News-oriented coverage, the vast majority of special programming, provided context narratives:

  • a heroic administration (Timeline of Terror);
  • the blunders of Bush policy (Day of Destruction: Decade of War); the heroism of the fallen (Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11);
  • the continuity of family (20/20: Remembrance and Renewal 10 Years After the 9/11 Attacks).

The desire to construct a redemptive narrative is apparent in all of them, whether through depicting leadership in the aftermath of the attack, the ability to critique in order to correct misguided policy, appreciation for those who died trying to save others, or by presenting the progeny of the dead, respectively. There was minor coverage of women as heroes and of widowers, though the main thrust of the coverage still casts men as heroes and women as widows or victims. In part this reflects the disproportionate number of men who died on 9/11, but it also indicates the downplaying of women's heroic deeds in the dominant narrative of 9/11 and its aftermath.

Range of programming

Throughout the years, the meaning of 9/11 has been interpreted in conflicting ways. Media coverage was affected by both the political orientation of the channel and the network “brand” or corporate identity, which media outlets adopt and foster to distinguish them in the media glut. These brand identities influence the approach networks take in their coverage. The History Channel mounted sober feature-length documentaries such as 102 Minutes that Changed America (Rittenmeyer and Skundrick, 2008). This un-narrated compilation film of professional and amateur, hand-held footage and recordings archived from 40 sources captures the texture of feeling for a day of horror when words failed. In contrast to the strong sense of immediacy conveyed by the documentary film, most channels presented narrated or host-driven news specials. An Animal Planet show, Saved, focused on how dogs save traumatized people in the aftermath of loss. Appealing to the station’s animal-loving target audience, the focus was on victimized families and heroic dogs, avoiding even the interpersonal complexities of the situations portrayed. Similarly CNN’s Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11 approached the under-recognition of female first responders in a bland, melodramatic manner with a studied avoidance of a feminist perspective. The Univision program Especial 9/11: Diez Años Despues (9/11 Special: Ten Years Later) highlighted the role of Latinos connected to the attack or the memorial, but did so while providing a critical account of such things as site-related health problems. ABC’s 20/20: Remembrance and Renewal 10 Years After the 9/11 Attacks featured, as 1 of 6 segments, one on the babies born after 9/11 to the wives of the dead. The segment concluded with a heartstring-pulling montage of side-by-side photographs of the 10-year olds and the fathers they resemble, to the heart-rending lyrics of “I’m Already There.”

Other news shows took a more decidedly hard news approach, presenting historically embedded narratives. MSNBC’s three-part Day of Destruction: Decade of War hosted by Rachel Maddow and Richard Engel staged a highly critical dissection of U.S. foreign and domestic policy of the past decade, linking the billions of dollars going to profit-motivated security contractors and the “new normal of intrusion” to the debt-driven economic collapse of 2008.[1][open endnotes in new window] From the other end of the spectrum, FOX cable news’ Timeline of Terror was true to its “patriotic” brand. It presented a fear mongering account that aggrandized Bush and his Administration. Sourcing was heavily skewed to Republican politicians and FOX station archival accounts, ending triumphantly with a picture of Bin Laden labeled “deceased.” In both these cases we see networks build partisan community, using niche marketing aimed at specific demographic slices, progressives and conservatives respectively.

Also in a critical vein, Al-Jazeera English produced a multipart special, The 9/11 Decade that featured Al-Qaeda sources shunned by U.S. media, as well as FBI and CIA sources, to provide a counter-narrative on the effects of U.S. foreign policy. For instance, the invasion of Iraq is characterized as invigorating Al-Qaeda, transforming it from a man and a group to a philosophy and a movement.

The most uniform coverage was the live broadcast of the commemoration ceremony, which followed the precedent of previous anniversary coverage and was sourced from a shared feed to minimize camera intrusion on the participants. The hour prior to this was host-centered, full of chatter, insipid remarks, and politicians who inserted themselves into the narrative of the attack or its aftermath. But when it came to the commercial-free ceremony coverage, the variations were few. Local NYC stations focused on the memorial at Ground Zero. NBC relied on local coverage, but differentiated its broadcast by retaining the insert shots of photos of the dead even when the camera cut away from the podium to mourners at the memorial pools. In contrast, CNN Int’l, oriented to international distribution, broke from Ground Zero to the multiple ceremonial sites at the Pentagon, Shanksville PA, and elsewhere. It also broke more often from the reading of the names soundtrack to a voiceover of largely unsentimental policy oriented commentary and the reactions of Federal insiders, such as Ari Fleischer, on the day of the attack.

The tone of the ceremony was elegiac and mournful. Free of ads and largely free of host commentary, family members of the dead took center stage. The five-hour litany of names was interrupted only intermittently when local and national politicians did short readings; prominent musicians performed; and bell tolls at the hour of each plane crash, and the collapse of each tower.

The family members who read the names did so in the lower tones of sadness or the higher register of grief. The impact of the readings drew from the accretion of names and testimonials which conveyed the enormity of the loss, and from the contagion effect of grief, as the camera largely remained steadfastly on the faces of the bereaved, their voices layered with instrumental music played at the scene.

The mini-eulogy and the documentary approach use a narrative mode to build community that revolves around affect. Each mourner in their own way delivered powerful, sympathy-inducing expressions of the human suffering precipitated by the attacks of 9/11. A closer analysis of what made the commemorative eulogies and the film, 102 Minutes that Changed America, so effective follows.

The eloquence of human suffering: the documentary approach

The live micro-eulogies of family members and the sober documentaries produced by the History Channel, which featured live footage of the attack, both presented without commercial interruption, eloquently expressed human suffering without becoming melodramatic. In the commemoration ceremony, human suffering was displayed through the face and voice of family members, the poignant failure of words, the reliance on clichés, the truncated simplicity of the statement, or a voice choking in mid-stride.

Similarly, the un-narrated documentary replayed the familiar 102-minute timeline of the attack and collapse of the towers, punctuated by the faces of bystanders and firefighters, and the silhouettes of people crowded 4 to 5 deep at the windows in the burning towers. The documentary’s use of iconic imagery and ambient sound – sirens, fire truck horns, newscasters, words of alarm from onlookers, screams – was amplified by its scoring. Almost every minute of footage in 102 Minutes that Changed America was overlaid with dread-inducing music typical of the horror film. The underscore, together with the anguish and dread on the faces of onlookers, conveyed and restaged the mix of feelings shared on that day by eyewitnesses and television viewers around the world. Without narration, few voices appear on the soundtrack: a 911 operator instructing a trapped caller to stay inside the building and wait for rescue; a firefighter’s eyes following a falling body and cursing when it hits the ground with an explosive thump; an off-screen amateur videographer telling his off-screen wife that the man at the window waving a white shirt has fallen out. It is with the oblique depiction of “jumpers” that the documentary walks a fine line between presenting the only visible evidence of ongoing death, and restraint. Much is left to the imagination, as it was in 2001 as well. The falling bodies can only be seen in long shot without detail, hitting the ground off-screen. The only body part we see is during the cleanup, when the camera pans past a reddish mound on the ground, quite a ways from the splintered remains of the tower. But the film does give an indication of how prevalent the sight of jumpers was that day.

As Tom Junod describes it in his 2003 Esquire article, “The Falling Man”:

“They jumped continually, from all four sides of the [North Tower], and from all floors above and around the building's fatal wound….For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself.”

U.S. networks censored the magnitude of the response, the impulse to flinch from the flames and the smoke, ostensibly to protect the public, the dignity of the dead, and their professional reputations as defined by mainstream U.S. standards. USA Today, drawing on eyewitness accounts, forensic evidence, and video recordings, concluded that at least two hundred people died by jumping. Network coverage of the event in 2001 quickly censored the images of falling bodies, but not the horror-stricken expressions of onlookers. The realization in retrospect, that many of the horrified reactions televised during the catastrophe coverage of the event were due to watching people jump to their deaths, results in

“an almost vertiginous sensation of the ground giving way beneath our feet…[as we] revise what [we] thought [we] knew about how people died on 9/11” (Junod, 2012) .

But the absence of bodies is more than the result of censorship. It is a structuring absence of the event itself, perhaps most stunningly manifested in the “missing” posters tacked on telephone and lampposts all over the city. Many remains have never been found. Incinerated or buried, they are still unrecoverable. The documentary shows people falling, though not in numbers that suggest the estimated 200 who died that way. The larger stream of falling bodies and the voices on the other end of 911 calls can be found on the internet, but not in the documentary, not even ten years later.

The documentary reenacts the trauma of watching the attack, but it differs from the catastrophe coverage of 2001 in several key ways. First, it cherry picks the most powerful or the most high-resolution images from various sources not available for broadcast at the time. It culls images shot by professional and amateur alike, images taken as the event itself unfolded, sometimes recording events accidentally. Second, the diversity of footage allows the event to be shown from various vantage points taken in the surrounding vicinity from the ground and from the air. The blend of multi-camera, multi-format perspectives suggests a sutured picture of the whole. Third, the pervasiveness of high definition television and reception in the U.S. home allows for clearer images than were available in 2001. Fourth, the inclusion of recordings of 911 dispatchers played over footage of a burning tower confronts the viewer with the distressing contradiction between what must have been the anguish of the caller inside the building and the insistence of the dispatchers to stay put. Heard in the present with the knowledge of what is to come, with the understanding that their advice is terribly misguided, it refreshes our sense of the magnitude of despair, and fills the sympathetic viewer with a sense of dread that revisits that day.

Watching is hard to bear. In that sense, the documentary reenacts the trauma of that day for viewers in and outside NY. The documentary once again places the viewer in the spectator position of witness to a specific, imminent threat, one that violates basic expectations about what can happen, unable to act, helpless as events unfold. This is the state philosopher Robert Solomon calls “real horror,” one that requires narrative, suspense, and spectacle. The larger narrative we know.[2] No narration is required, just an occasional time stamp. Suspense is created by our knowledge of how much further the situation will deteriorate, coupled with unfamiliar footage from amateur videographers, and honed by the underscore. The towers embody the spectacle of death. The visual focus of the film alternates between faces—of emergency personnel and bystanders, falling bodies, and the towers—punctured by a plane, burning, collapsing in a crush of debris. The stricken concrete bodies of the towers are a displacement, a synecdochic moment, a stand in for the largely undepicted falling bodies, and those crushed inside the buildings.[3]True to Kristiaan Versluys’s characterization, 9/11 is an event that, even in documentary form, can only be expressed through “allegory and indirection” (14).

There are no personal narratives here[4] though the details of individual faces, especially the stream of fire fighters heading into the buildings, now that we know the outcome, refuses the viewer a distanced position. The compilation format avoids the reduction of traumatic event to the personal meaning it has for an individual. In the documentary, meaning exceeds personal meaning. Inter-subjective experience is downplayed while “the immediacy of affective shock” is given prominence. (Cetinic, 288)

Foremost, the documentary tries to re-create the physical and affective experience of 9/11 as an overwhelming event. The unfolding catastrophe coverage in 2001 included phone calls to news anchors from people who gave testimony to what they were witnessing and to their emotions, often conveyed in a physical manner. As Britta Timm Knudsen analyzes this coverage,

"[T]hese witnesses do not fulfill a cognitive purpose—they fulfill an affective purpose: they tell us what it is like to be physically placed in such a dangerous situation. The television viewer experiences the situation through these witnesses, through their bodies." (119, emphasis in original)

A similar effect is created in the documentary by insert shots of horror-stricken eyewitnesses on the scene. By cross cutting these reaction shots with images of the burning buildings, some of which show people piled at windows, but not with images of falling bodies, the documentary refuses to attribute the source of their horror directly to jumpers.

The camera assumes the role of, what Luc Boltanski calls, the “tactful camera,” one that exercises restraint while it points to what it is leaving out. The tactful camera refrains from showing us images deemed too upsetting. We see bystanders looking up, but not what were reported to be the most distressing images. We see the horrified expression of firefighters responding to an unexpectedly loud thud, indexical sign of a violent death, but we do not see those bodies. The sudden shift from quiet to loud is startling, but coupled with the firefighter’s distressed face, it is harrowing, perhaps because it leaves so much to the imagination. Similarly, we hear the 911 dispatchers, but not the voices of distressed callers from the building. This abridged depiction represents a camera that makes ethical choices to protect the viewer. The tactful camera does the looking away from the moment of death for us.

Though the images are riveting, and the soundtrack often unobtrusive, the importance of the soundtrack cannot be underestimated. Almost the entire film is underscored, but with varying levels of conspicuousness. The underscore is highly variable, non-melodic, often pairing two discordant minor chords—a deep bass rumble and a high pitch whine—to foster a disquieting mood. Sometimes the score resembles a sound effect, as when the music simulates the sound of the image with which it is paired, for instance when smoke billows from one of the towers (20:01-20:15). At other times, the music increases tempo to generate suspense. Shortly before the second tower falls, a fast rhythmic clicking is paired with a bass rumble until the tower plummets. The pulsating rhythmic notes increase in pace and volume, creating a sense of urgency. Much of the underscoring here and elsewhere creates a sense of dread and enhances the haunting qualities of the film, which won Emmys in 2009 for sound editing and sound mixing.[5]

After the first tower falls, and the debris cloud passes, it is momentary silence that speaks the loudest. A fire dispatcher pages the tower, with no response.

The film is highly edited, sewing together scenes from many different sources, both amateur and professional. It is the underscoring that sutures together the many visual cuts as they transition – from the footage of a resident in a nearby building peering out a window, to someone on the ground, to the view from a subway train going over the bridge, to close-ups of the burning tower taken from a helicopter. The sound is practically invisible much of the time, and all the more effective for it. It even renders the highly edited nature of the visuals less evident.

Viewers could even overlook the well-executed sound and picture editing. Indeed, some website posters credited the film’s rhetorical and affective power to its unedited, and un-narrated character.

“Such a powerful film. Having no narrative makes you feel like you were there. True, unbiased, and haunting reality.” (Topdocumentaryfilms, Mike, June 2011)

Mike’s comment mistakenly equates narrative with voiceover narration, but it also suggests the degree to which the film is able to replicate the confusion and trepidation of that day, resulting in a forceful viewing experience.

“…I don't think there has been any other video that has touched me as much as this one. I think it is because it is unedited and there is no real commentary. I was moved…” (Amazon, Nini, Aug. 29, 2011).

Nini’s comment fails to register the highly edited nature of a film where footage (IMDb credits 40 names for footage) was actively selected to represent a given moment in a linear chronology. The gripping imagery’s recollection of events, together with an underscore that more often than not does not draw attention to itself, is read as a lack of mediation, but this is a very carefully constructed film that won an Emmy for Outstanding Picture Editing.

In addition to the compelling images and disturbing underscore, the inclusion of reaction shots, present since the catastrophe coverage, is vital to the affective force of the film. The reaction shots present us with “…impressions of [the] event in the eyes, faces and gestures of other viewers...[so that viewers] are invited to become emotionally involved in the scenario” (Knudsen, 123). A similar effect is achieved in the coverage of the ceremonial reading of the names.

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