That September 11, 2001 Video

As I mentioned, I watched tonight on PBS, which, when showing the pre-produced rah-rah bio videos was diligent about flagging them with the words “Republican Party Video.”

Well, tonight, as the RNC rolled a terrorism montage, the NewsHour inserted the standard font and took it down, as they usually do, partway through the video. But only for a second, as the film quickly turned to footage of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center towers, and then of one of the towers collapsing. As that segment began, PBS quickly put the disclaimer up again, and held it until the Republicans moved on to gentler images. To my eyes, it looked like they were doing their best to emphasize that, “No, really, this isn’t PBS’s video.”

As I remember it from my time working there, the NewsHour had a strict policy about showing archival tape from that day. Using the still standing but smoking towers was OK, and video of the site after the collapse, or of the Pentagon wreckage, was ok. But the planes crashing—the instant when hundreds of people died—or the towers collapsing—which of course killed many, many more—weren’t allowed on air.

Of course, it’s not hard to bring those pictures up in your mind, find them on the internet, or see them in other films. But it was a matter of taste—similar to many newspapers’ policies against printing graphic images of violence.

The Republicans didn’t feel any such prohibition. Rather, they put these images of death to a soundtrack to make a primetime national security pitch. (Andrew Kohut pointed out on PBS that McCain wins a 15% gap when voters are asked which candidate’s national security bone fides they prefer—by far his largest single-issue advantage.)

The video drew this sharp parody of a newswire obit from The Boston Globe’s Sasha Issenberg:

ST. PAUL — One of the most enduring taboos in American politics, the airing of graphic images from the September 11 attacks in a partisan context, died today. It was nearly seven years old.

The informal prohibition, which had been occasionally threatened by political ads in recent years, was pronounced dead at approximately 7:40 CST, when a video aired before delegates at the Republican National Convention included slow-motion footage of a plane striking the World Trade Center, the towers’ subsequent collapse, and smoke emerging from the Pentagon.

The September 11 precedent was one of the few surviving campaign-season taboos. It is survived by direct comparisons of one’s opponents to Hitler.

And after MSNBC passed the video on to its viewers, Keith Olbermann, by this shotgun transcript, said what no one else was willing to just before cutting to commercial:

I’m sorry. It’s necessary to say this and I wanted to separate myself from the others on the air about this. If at this late date any television network had of its own accord shown that much videotape and that much graphic videotape of 9/11 — and I speak as somebody who lost a few friends there — it, we would be rightly eviscerated at all quarters programs by the Republican party itself for exploiting the memories of the dead and perhaps even for trying to evoke that pain again. If you reacted to that videotape the way I did, I apologize. It is a subject of great pain for many of us still and was probably not appropriate to be shown. We’ll continue in a moment.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.