Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2002/ 11 Tishrei, 5763
Sept. 12: The peace that passeth all understanding
Sept. 11 finally ended and members of the CNN family -- Paula, Aaron, Connie -- were conducting a post-mortem on their coverage of the day. Were we great, or were we great?
Connie Chung, whose penetrating insights have lulled me to sleep many a night, said of the network's coverage: "In fact, there isn't a person out there who believes it was not appropriate."
Whereupon, hundreds of miles away, I started jumping up and down in my kitchen, waving my arms: "Connie, yoo-hoo, over here, Connie!"
Didn't overdo it? Did it just right? Call me Goldilocks, but the endless, mournful, doleful, baleful extravaganza was too much for the waking or the dead. (Note to next year's organizers: Violins playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a big "No"; also, Mrs. Bush, ditch the itty-bitty flag.)
Now, I confess I didn't watch it all. And there are some people in my very own household who find me more annoying than Connie Chung and comment accordingly. Still. I tuned in throughout the day and each time felt exactly the opposite of what I knew I was supposed to feel. Why is that?
The first stab of alienation began when fab cellist Yo-Yo Ma tuned his instrument (oh, that was the song?) while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani began reading the roster of those who died in the Twin Towers attack. In my uncynical view, the reading of names is effective in the same way the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is. Suddenly it's not about "nearly 3,000 dead," but about real people, real lives, real deaths.
And so many of them.
The names pack a wallop, as someone accurately figured, but Wednesday's sauce was too rich. Ma's bizarre haunted-castle dirge combined with the over-ponderous pronouncement of each victim -- like Zeus playing Bob Barker raising Frankenstein -- conspired to induce cynicism even among the innocent. Where was Don Pardo with gifts for the entire family?
The best part of the day was that blissful moment of silence when the wind started swirling at Ground Zero and participants were mindful of a sudden shift. We in TV land missed the jolt of that moment. At the precise instant of the first plane's impact, the wind suddenly whipped, flags flapped, people grabbed hats and children, and the sky cleared in a way that many have described as biblical. Presence.
Which is of course what's missing when you're an audience once removed rather than a player in the drama. The presence that makes an experience real rather than contrived, an emotion authentic rather than manufactured. The absence of that presence, both physical and spiritual, is what's intrinsically wrong with television coverage of an event otherwise so poignant.
Television is its own worst enemy. The heads can't shut up because silence is the enemy of the talking medium, yet silence is what's called for. Problematic, too, is the mandate to convey grief when the grief really belongs to others.
How much gravitas can one conjure for a camera lens to capture? (Do they practice before mirrors?) How close is too close to zoom in on another's tears? How do you freeze-frame the wind so that the folks watching back home can feel the sting of human dust?
On Tuesday, I attended the funeral of one my oldest and dearest friends, who died suddenly at age 56. He had just finished a reading in synagogue on Rosh Hashana, sat down and died. At his burial, friends and family gathered to participate in what the rabbi correctly labeled his "wedding." Mark was a single man; his life a perpetual celebration; and we, his friends, were all his brides.
The grief felt there was as real and palpable as the grief doubtless felt Wednesday at Ground Zero and the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. But there's no way a camera or a microphone could have captured it, nor any way spectators, even knowing death, could have shared it.
Television, by its own definition and limitations, always overdoes it -- whatever "it" is -- and Connie and the rest know it as well as the kitchen cynics do. By the act of coverage -- the intrusion of cameras on strangers' shoulders with boom mikes and satellites -- we hijack pain from its rightful heart and objectify it to our own purposes.
It is for that reason that authentic souls rebel and turn away.
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© 2001, Tribune Media Services