The Media Eye

It never blinks -- even when we wish it would.

Although I am a professional consumer of media (meaning that I get paid to monitor the press in all of its many facets), I am not all that different from the amateur kind -- particularly at times when a single story dominates the national consciousness. As such, I imagine that my experiences on September 11 weren't far removed from those of untold millions of Americans who witnessed the apparent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., from a distance -- the distance between them and a television, radio or computer monitor.

The morning kicked off like many others. My wife, Deb, left for work at 6:45 a.m. as I was serving breakfast to my son, Nick, twelve, and eight-year-old twin daughters, Lora and Ellie. But then, shortly after Nick finished eating and headed to the basement to play Nintendo, Channel 9 morning anchor Gary Shapiro announced that the station was breaking into programming to broadcast coverage of an explosion at the World Trade Center in New York.

At which point my day, and that of countless others, changed dramatically.

That wasn't clear initially, of course. The Today show was running live rather than on a two-hour tape-delay basis, but neither Matt Lauer nor Katie Couric could say if the plane that smashed into the first tower of the World Trade Center had done so as the result of a terrible accident or a deliberate act. Things grew clearer within minutes, though, as Lora, Ellie and I watched a second aircraft explode against tower number two as it happened, in living color. Within seconds, I found myself fighting through the shock of what I'd just witnessed to explain, as best I could, the concept of international terrorism to a pair of third-graders without panicking or upsetting them -- a task that couldn't help but recall a similar conversation we'd had following the assault on Columbine High School two years earlier.

After ten minutes, they appeared to understand what they'd witnessed to some degree and were curious but calm -- so I decided to try and go on with the morning, taking Lora upstairs to go over her spelling words for the week. I told Ellie, who'd forgotten to bring home her spelling list the day before, to watch kids' programming until we were finished, and saw her switch to Cartoon Network. But by the time Lora and I came downstairs ten minutes later, Ellie was back on Channel 9, watching the blaze again -- and when I sent her and her siblings to brush their teeth shortly thereafter (by which time the Pentagon was burning, too), Ellie quickly found an excuse to get into a fight with her brother. Obviously, she was having a little difficulty processing information.

Once peace was restored, I dropped my spawn at their respective schools and headed to work, listening slack-jawed to updates on KHOW, KTLK and KOA, which wisely relied on a national feed, only occasionally breaking in with reports on local angles. But I soon discovered this hadn't been the case from the beginning. Upon arriving at work, I had a message from Deb, who told me that for long minutes after other stations had thrown themselves into crisis mode, KOA was still talking about Bronco receiver Ed McCaffrey's broken leg. According to her, she got more information about the strikes from Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce on Alice than she did from Denver's reputed radio news leader. As for KHOW, she said the station took quite a while to drop its commercials; at one point, Peter Boyles apologized to his audience before reading a spot for a teeth-whitening service. Deb could feel his pain.

Meanwhile, at Westword, the office cable was out, leaving employees to watch a TV that received just one station (Channel 9) via a completely inadequate antenna. Plus, news Web sites all over the country were so overwhelmed that they couldn't be accessed. So I e-mailed my three closest friends in New York to make sure they were okay, almost instantly receiving reassurances from the first, and then headed back home, listening to the radio during the drive. The Fan, I discovered, had temporarily set sports aside in favor of syndicated news -- a good move. But KTLK was broadcasting some moronic talk-show host from Los Angeles; his vaguely irresponsible blathering about terrorism and Lord knows what else was no doubt a harbinger of bad things to come. Back at KHOW, Boyles was taking calls and serving as a sympathetic ear, while KOA's Mike Rosen was interspersing talk about all the potentially luscious terrorist targets in Colorado with phrases like, "I'm not trying to be an alarmist, but..." Thank goodness.

For the next two hours, I scanned from one news channel to the next, trying to form impressions about what I was seeing, and I wound up with a few. For instance, the most extensive local coverage during the early hours was offered by Channel 2, with Channel 9 sticking most devotedly to national material; the latter was the only area outlet that didn't broadcast Mayor Wellington Webb's remarks live.

I also got a chance to see the special editions raced onto the streets by the Rocky Mountain News, which squeezed just one local story into its pages, and the Denver Post, which got an impressive amount of original material into print on awfully short notice. Granted, the columns by Chuck Green and Woody Paige didn't contain any fresh insights -- but how fresh can anyone's insights be hours after something like this happens?

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