On the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, THIRTEEN looks back at the news coverage and series it created in 2001 to help heal New Yorkers, address the trauma and speak out against the backlash towards the Muslim-American community. For an overview of related programs and articles addressing September 11, see Remembering 9/11.
A report from the archives of The Voice, THIRTEEN’s employee newsletter. Fall 2001.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
After the unprecedented events of September 11th, Thirteen’s Programming
Department Rose to the Occasion with Live Talk Shows, Memorials, and more.
When the worst terrorist attack in America’s history felled the lofty towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, Thirteen endured staggering technical havoc (see When a Signal is a Beacon). Nonetheless, the station’s Programming and Broadcast Engineering Departments responded to the disaster and its aftermath like a media MASH unit. Their efforts allowed Thirteen to immediately produce and present a superb lineup of live discussions and specials in the tradition of public television at its best.
“This was an extraordinary team effort, not just on our part, but by virtually everyone in every area of the station,” says Andy Halper, Senior Producer for News and Public Affairs. “The result was a classic example of ‘If Thirteen Doesn’t Do It, Who Will?’.”
Less than two hours after suicide airplane pilots caused the death, injury, and disappearance of over 6,000 people, Thirteen’s top management met to determine the station’s most appropriate and feasible response. “Thirteen doesn’t normally do a live, daily newscast, so we didn’t think that trying to offer that style of coverage made sense,” says Stephen Segaller, Director of News and Public Affairs. “Thirteen’s stock in trade is programming that steps back to offer greater insight and perspective, and we decided to work with our strongest suit.”
So, “bookended” with WETA’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and its expanded nightly coverage, and Thirteen’s close partner in roundtable reparteé, Charlie Rose, who dedicated weeks of his nightly discussions to the disaster, Thirteen created two key prime time, live discussion series: Moyers in Conversation [with Bill Moyers] and New York Voices: The Days After. “They proved,” says Segaller with pride, “that the much maligned ‘talking head’ isn’t a bad thing when the heads that are talking make good, timely sense.”
Generally broadcast on alternate evenings, the series were interconnected in their featuring of a stellar roster of experts in their fields to enable the programs to achieve five key goals:
- offering spiritual and psychological insights and reactions;
- assisting parents in helping their children cope with the event;
- stemming the tide of backlash against the Muslim-American community;
- helping adults handle the trauma;
- and examining New York itself: its spirit, history, tenacity – and grief.
The series’ did, however, differ in their tone and formats: Moyers often featured more traditional interviews and sometimes included Thirteen president Dr. Bill Baker. Moyers’ subjects focused largely on the spiritual, psychological, and backlash aspects. New York Voices was highly interactive and received hundreds of calls during each broadcast. Subject matter (although not participants) overlapped to some extent with the Bill Moyers programs, but Voices largely placed its emphasis on child and adult trauma, and the city itself.
Participants in both series included noted professors of humanities and psychology from Columbia University; renowned religious leaders of various Christian denominations, as well as Judaism, Islam, and other faiths; leading artists, writers, and directors of major New York social initiatives; and directors of hospitals and other essential city services.
In addition, other pertinent programming featured on Thirteen was either specially produced by the station, syndicated by PBS for national broadcast, or were re-broadcast from Thirteen’s archives.
Thirteen’s ongoing series, Inside Trenton, devoted two episodes to news and views of the disaster, especially as it affected commuting citizens who were killed or missing, and, the Port Authority and the various bridges and tunnels under its supervision. Reach Out to Heal hosted by Mary Alice Williams and Rafael Pi Roman was a PBS special that devoted three hours on a Saturday evening to many of the same concerns covered by Moyers and Voices.
America’s loss, achievement, and determination were honored with other PBS specials, including The Kennedy Center Presents: A Concert for America; Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral; and A Tribute Concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Thirteen’s own America in Healing From Riverside Church, a touching 90-minute interfaith service and concert, offered respite on the Sunday after the event, and Live From Lincoln Center: The New York Philharmonic Memorial Concert, reminded America of the city’s artistic greatness.
As well, two programs from the station’s archives, Thirteen’s Amazing Grace with Bill Moyers and WGBH’s Frontline: Hunting Bin Laden, alternately offered the warm comfort of the nation’s favorite spiritual, and the cold-but-essential comfort of a detailed historical portrait that should have been better heeded when it first aired [in 1999].
Ironically, the long-awaited final two episodes of New York: A Documentary Film premiered on September 30 and October 1. These last installments on New York’s history from the Crash of ‘29 to the present day were completed before the events of September 11, and the series that was meant to end on a note of limitless optimism took on an unintended poignancy and double meaning in much of its commentary.
But perhaps the optimism and New York moxie the series intended to portray was visible within Thirteen itself. Stephen Segaller decided that the new programs produced to chronicle the tragedy would be shown without production credits (usually coveted recognition in TV production). “Thirteen made these programs, all of us, people from every department volunteered time and talent and other resources,” he said. Andy Halper seconded the emotion. “This event brought out the best and most generous behavior in everybody here, across the board.” And Bill Moyers had the final word. When, after a broadcast late one night, Segaller complimented the weary journalist for being a TV trouper, Moyers just shrugged and offered a wry smile. “What else can I do? I can’t go out there and dig through the rubble.”