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VETERAN MAINSTREAM MEDIA NEVER LOOKED BETTER

Neither one of them could quite hold themselves together -- neither the well-traveled, much-experienced news anchor or the veteran comic and talk show host.

On his first show back after the cataclysm of Sept. 11, David Letterman was OK talking about it all until he got to the point where he told his audience about a little farm town of 1,500 people in drought-stricken and financially depressed Montana. They all came together in a town rally, he marveled, to raise money for New York City, one of the richest and mightiest cities in the history of civilization.

Letterman lost it as he talked about it. "If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of the United States," he said in a cracking voice, "I can't help you." Everyone watching could once again see the human being through all those gloriously encrusted years of irony and attitude. It was the same one we'd seen once before when he introduced us to the medical team that presided over his arduous but successful bypass surgery.

Not long after, Dan Rather came on to talk about the horrifying and historic events he had been reporting from his chair in the past week. Rather was OK until he got to the contributions of New York City's firefighters. He broke down -- badly enough that he quickly asked Letterman to go to a commercial break.

When they came back, Rather said, "I'm a pro. I get paid not to let it show. I apologize for that."

There was, of course, nothing to apologize for. (The idea that professionalism and human vulnerability are somehow opposites is, perhaps, one of the major delusions of modern times.)

Along with everything else that changed -- at least a little -- in the events following that horrible and fateful morning of Sept. 11, so did the TV landscape and maybe even all of American media.

A contraction took place. Mainstream media never looked better. Experience never seemed more important. Out on the fringe, they struggled for relevance, even focus.

After decades of erosion at the hands of cable news and its 24-hour news cycle, that supposedly extinct dinosaur -- network news -- came roaring back. All of its main anchors -- the good, gray trio of Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw -- performed what may be the hardest task in all of television and were, to a man, utterly brilliant.

If you think about it, what television task could possibly be harder than to sit in a chair for eight, 10 hours at a clip while a national catastrophe unfolds? Crucial stories are breaking out in 10 different directions while you're on the air. Crucial facts have to be nailed down amid a chaotic flurry of misinformation. When an entire nation is gathered around "the electronic hearth" for information, that information has to be there and it has to be enough to keep a country warm.

Phenomenal reserves of lucidity, information and experience have to be called into play by the anchor who is juggling an entire news apparatus and world history in full view of millions of people.

If well-heeled ABC's coverage around a shirt-sleeved Jennings was, most notably, the best, all three major American network news organizations had long stretches of truly distinguished reporting and commentary under drastic conditions.

As did many people, I channel-surfed all the way through it. I was particularly struck by the contributions of two extraordinary commentators -- ABC's John Miller, a man who had once interviewed Osama bin Laden and was, when necessary, Jennings' strong, right-hand man, and especially Fouad Ajami, CBS' consultant on Arabic affairs.

Whatever else can be said about network news in an era in which ABC News is the one with the real operating budget, it was CBS that was smart and prescient enough to maintain as a consultant, a leading thinker about Arab affairs and the Arabic world.

Over at CNN -- the cable news network that, in a network-cutback era, was the recipient of everyone else's "let-CNN-cover it" abandonment -- neither their anchor team of Aaron Brown and Judy Woodruff nor their field reports seemed to be a match for the major networks. Woodruff in Washington actually seemed at times annoyed to have to go back to Brown's measured and excellent reportage in New York. Fox News, while predictably vivid, contributed exactly nothing to any higher understanding of what was happening.

If being a TV anchor during such a crisis is as hard as anything television offers, being the first talk-show host back after catastrophe is a close runner-up. Who could possibly imagine Jay Leno or Bill Maher having anything close to the grace required of that first comic back? Who else but Letterman has the emotional and intellectual resources for it? Who else but post-bypass Letterman has the perspective and wisdom to let emotions out as a kind of national restorative to sanity that is usually provided by his scathing humor?

His show began on Monday with the American flag and Letterman at his desk explaining that the only reason he was doing the show was because of the plea -- and the example -- of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

He was angry. He was eloquent. And he was even revealing. All that's required "for any of us is this: be courageous. Courage defines all other human behavior." And pretending you have it, he said, is sometimes almost the same as actually having it.

It would have been a startling insight at almost any time but, in this one, it may have been close to a defining moment in the history of television.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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