CBS took a big gamble in airing the 9/11 documentary earlier this month.Two French brothers happened to be filming a documentary on a year in the life of a new recruit at a Manhattan fire station when fate took a twist and allowed them to capture some of the most remarkable images of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
While one brother filmed from inside the first WTC tower, the other filmed from out in the dust-covered streets of Manhattan. The result was an extraordinary eyewitness documentary that People (March 18) suggested, "may become the Zapruder tape of 9/11."
It appears that CBS made the right call in deciding to broadcast the intense documentary on the six-month anniversary of the attacks. 9/11 was widely hailed as being a superb piece of filmmaking that tastefully captured the courage of those who faced a savage moment in history. A Fordham University communications professor told the Associated Press (March 11), "It was television at its very best.
In addition to positive reviews from the critics and media experts, firefighters were also occasionally cited for being pleased with the documentary.
Because the documentary was successful in depicting the gritty reality of Ground Zero without resorting to gore and graphic imagery, The Orlando Sentinel (March 11) suggested airing the film "should bring prestige to CBS
for leading the nation in the recovery process with such a fitting tribute to America's heroes.
But not everyone thought the timing was right. A number of stories covering CBS and 9/11 included the criticism by some that it was too soon to reopen the wound of September 11. These voices accused CBS of cashing in on a tragedy. The New York Daily News (March 11) published several articles that included criticism. A gentleman who lost both his wife of 36 years and his niece stated, "It's despicable to put it on so soon. Should it be on someday? Yes. But it's six months."
Much of the coverage provided Nielsen ratings for the broadcast. The audience of 39 million people was usually cited as being the largest audience of prime-time viewers for a non-sporting event this season. Reports also indicated that New York City was much more likely to tune in than the rest of the country.
A number of reports indicated that one of the highlights of the 9/11 documentary was the fact that it contained the only known footage from within the WTC. In addition to that never-before-seen footage, 9/11 also had the only footage of the first plane crashing into the WTC, although this had been shown by TV networks. USA Today (March 12) reported, "Unique video of the moments after the attack, including scenes inside the lobby of Tower 1 after it was hit, was the most compelling element, say media experts, who praised the special."
Only a few reports actually contained criticism of the documentary itself, beyond the timing of the broadcast. One New York City Fire Captain told the New York Post (March 11), "I suppose it's all to do with money and ratings. I call it exploitative."
While the 9/11 documentary was controversial, most reviews gave it a thumbs up for being tasteful and a fitting salute to the firefighters on the frontline at Ground Zero.
- Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.