The networks did point to a few exceptions. ABC News’s once-or-twice-yearly Peter Jennings Reporting series has taken on an eclectic range of subjects, some of them much more current than others; one of last year’s entries examined the power of the National Rifle Association, the other the life of Jesus. Other programs have come under the rubrics of existing magazine shows. Once a year Ed Bradley has devoted the entire hour of 60 Minutes II to a single topic such as warning signs before the Columbine shootings or AIDS in Africa. NBC News’s Dateline, too, has periodically turned an entire program over to one correspondent exploring a single issue; recent hours have examined teenage Sudanese refugees in America and a murder inspired by racist Web sites.
In September alone, NBC News did have on the schedule two programs it somehow called “News Specials.” The first, “Revenge of the Whale,” portrayed the ordeal of desperate sailors driven to cannibalism after a sperm whale sank their ship in a remote stretch of the Pacific. The description of the program on MSNBC.com suggests one reason NBC considered this 181-year-old event newsy enough to deserve a two-hour special. Under the headline “Survivors’ Nightmare,” the blurb tells us this is “Nantucket-style reality TV” that “makes all those survivors look like sissies” — and of course back in early September a reference to “survivors” still meant only one thing, CBS’s wildly popular last-person-left-standing reality program. The second special, an hour with Tom Brokaw called “A Day in the Life of President Bush: Inside the Real West Wing,” had been scheduled as the lead-in for the season premiere of one of NBC’s hottest hit shows. (It was “postponed by the White House,” says NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin.)
In our new post-attack lives, of course, a lot of what we used to do has come to look embarrassingly trivial, and it’s not entirely fair to judge yesterday’s bright ideas with today’s sobered consciousness. But we can hope that our new seriousness might make unthinkable a repetition of the phenomenon of a news division devoting its resources and brand name to fighting the battles of the entertainment division. In the early days after the attacks, the networks and cable news channels showed that they could do impressive work on the fly — and viewers, notably those Rangers and Flyers fans who demanded to watch the president’s address to Congress instead of the end of a tied hockey game, showed their eagerness to follow the story. As events continue to unfold, perhaps news divisions will find the time, and see the need, to do the protracted reporting and to devote the on-air hours instead of minutes that will be required to set this story in its whole sprawling context.
Another traditional medium that was looking precarious before the attacks may also earn new respect in a reshaped media world. Newspapers have, of course, been under an almost constant deathwatch for decades, slated for demolition by radio, by television, by the Internet, by the movies (which would soak up all available leisure), or by the car (drivers can’t read while commuting). And it’s true that the total number of newspapers, the number of independent papers and two-paper cities, and the circulation figures have all been sliding for years, while the shrinking economy has been bringing worrisome layoffs. The Newhouse family’s privately held Advance chain has been earning praise and Pulitzers for the independence and relatively unfettered budgets allowed its editors — but it has been the Gannett chain, with its mingy accounting, scrunched news holes, and unprecedented 28 percent operating margin last year, that seemed the more popular industry model.
Television, clearly, does some things very, very well, and many of those things were on display in September: it was immediate, it was riveting, it was authoritative, it never slept, and it provided a stable, familiar hearth around which strangers could gather and mourn in communion. It sacrificed its ad revenues and busted its budgets. CNN, with its man already on the ground in Afghanistan, didn’t look so outdated anymore.
Yet the crisis brought out the best in newspapers, too. Part of their appeal, of course, is exactly what Dan Rather was widely derided for acknowledging in his coverage of President Bush’s August decision on stem-cell research — that they have the capacity to handle complex matters better than television. And faced with such truly complex (and often non-visual) matters as global politics, international conspiracy, economic emergency, and the possibility of a new and covert kind of war, the newspapers that had refused to sacrifice such expensive and unfashionable assets as investigative teams, specialized beats, foreign correspondents, or international sources were quickly able to turn in some astonishing in-depth reporting on backgrounds, causes, consequences, and corollaries.