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IN COVERING TERRORIST ATTACK STORY, <br> TV NEWS IS REASSURING AND REALISTIC

A week after the horrific image of the twin towers of the World Trade Center falling down, the image of national television news has never been better.

The coverage of the terrorist attacks was television's finest hour. Or shall we say, television's finest 100 hours.

But even television news reporters knew that the pictures couldn't tell the full story. Over the weekend, one network reporter on the scene said that the images people were seeing on television didn't reflect one-hundredth of the actual devastation.

As powerful as television pictures are, you can't smell the horror and the smoke, you can't understand the cumulative effect of the damage to property and the psyche.

While some media experts have said that the terrorist attacks were a TV event that rendered print reports almost pointless, the written descriptions of the carnage often made the disaster seem more real than the repetitive TV shots.

After a while, the aerial shots of the scene obscure the picture, making viewers numb to the very real devastation. Similarly, the repeat airing of the footage in which the commercial jets fly into the twin towers ceases to have the same impact after the 10th or 20th viewing.

As strong a job as TV has done, it has made some errors along the way. Atop the list is the number of times the footage of the jets flying into the buildings has been shown.

During a Saturday story about the funeral of Amy King, who was a flight attendant on one of the aircraft, a local station showed viewers the crash scene a few times. It was inappropriate and unnecessary. We didn't have to see the plane head into the building to know how she died, and it was hardly a comforting sight.

One can understand why local TV news departments felt they had to send reporters to New York. It is only 400 miles away and many Western New Yorkers have come from the area and have ties there.

But the local reporters could add little to the national reports, especially in the first few days when they were reporting from across the river in New Jersey. Eventually, they talked to rescue workers from Western New York who tried to do their part and were overwhelmed by what they saw.

Also on the list of errors was some misinformation put out after the first few days caused by the rush to keep up with a story that was constantly advancing. The scary report that more hijackings were thwarted appeared to be premature or exaggerated. The heartwarming report that five New York City firemen had been rescued turned out to be false, too.

Still, most of television's coverage tried to be comforting. On Saturday morning, NBC's Al Roker and ABC's Peter Jennings were the hosts of specials geared to young children who may have had some difficulty coping with the images they had seen in the previous few days.

Financial experts were everywhere over the weekend, too, trying to persuade investors not to panic once the stock market reopened Monday.

TV was at its best detailing the numerous personal stories of those who died and those who were left behind to deal with the pain.

The emotional story of the chief executive of a financial firm who lost 700 employees, including his brother, was so raw and so haunting that it was excruciatingly painful to watch. There were numerous stories almost as moving, including one involving a young West Coast man whose wife left him a tearful cell phone message while trapped in one of the towers.

My brother, who lives in Washington, D.C., said he saw a two-part story unfold before his eyes over two days. The first day, he saw a CBC story on cable in which a survivor said a friend of his was missing after he turned back to help another friend who was stuck several floors up in the building. The next day, my brother saw a report on a different network in which a woman was searching for her missing brother. He was the man in the CBC story who went back for his friend.

After a while, stories like this made it difficult to keep watching. For one's own mental health, it probably was wise to turn off the set for hours at a time when the suffering and the pain just became too unbearable. Eventually, the set had to be turned on again, even if you knew that more stories like that were ahead.

By Sunday, the focus had shifted from being comforting to being realistic about how America could prevent future terrorist attacks and punish those responsible for last week's devastation.

NBC's Tim Russert had the big "get," an hour interview with Vice President Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press." The vice president, who had been taken to Camp David after the attacks for security reasons, painted a sobering picture of what America would be facing and had to do to combat this evil opponent.

The interview received widespread attention on all the networks, which have been sharing footage and credit throughout the crisis.

At 10 p.m. Sunday, ABC's Ted Koppel discussed the difficulties that lay ahead for the American intelligence community and the military with some of our country's leading experts in both fields.

It was a pretty depressing picture, one that seemed designed to lower the expectations of any American who thinks this threat is over and can be obliterated easily or quickly. It was such a scary program that it almost deserved a parental advisory to keep small children away.

Having comforted and reassured us, television news now was ready to prepare us for what promises to be a long battle ahead.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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