For the second time in my lifetime, U.S. network television dropped
all other programming and commercials for four days of non-stop
coverage of a major news event.
The first time that happened was in November 1963, when John
Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. The second began when terrorists
hijacked four jets and crashed two of them into the World Trade
Whatever else the terrorist attack did, it provided a huge boost
to the sagging ratings for U.S. commercial television. It did
not do the same for revenues. By dropping all commercials U.S.
television lost money. The networks like the travel industry
were one of the economic victims of the attack.
believe that victims will be dazed and confused and in shock
and that there is a real possibility of panic. In fact, in
most emergencies, survivors do most, if not all, of the initial
search and rescue. Panic is so rare it is almost impossible
The fact that the non-stop coverage had occurred in 1963 was
ignored. The material I read described the post-September 11 non-stop
coverage as "unprecedented."
Experienced editors know it is always risky and usually wrong
to use superlatives. It is never wise to file a story about the
first, the fastest, the biggest or to say anything is unprecedented.
In my opinion, that lesson was too often ignored in coverage of
the World Trade Center attack. That was not all that appeared
to me to be overlooked.
Take, for example, the fact that the attack was aimed at New
York's financial district and was or so we are told
masterminded by a sort of super terrorist: Osama bin Ladin.
There had already been a bomb exploded at the World Trade Center
and there have been similar attacks on London's financial district,
such as the Bishopsgate bombing April 24, 1993 the incident
that led most major U.S. financial firms to prepare plans for
a destructive terrorist attack.
One can also reach back much further. On September 16, 1920,
Mario Buda bombed Wall Street leaving 30 dead, more than 200 injured
and creating fires that caused $2-million damage. Buda was a follower
of the Italian anarchist, Luigi Galleani, who bears a fascinating
resemblance to Osama bin Ladin in the sense that he opposed the
state and capitalism. He is of particular interest to Canadians
because after being indicted in 1902 for starting a riot, he fled
to Canada for sanctuary before slipping back into the U.S. under
a different name.
attacks are not new either, not even from the air. Suicide kamikaze
attacks caused enormous damage to the U.S. Pacific fleet during
World War II and suicide bombers are a tragic fact of everyday
life in Israel.
It would have been fascinating and instructive if media outlets
had looked at the response in London to the Bishopsgate bombing,
telling us how firms there recovered from such an attack, and
had someone perhaps an historian help us understand
that terrorist attacks on the U.S. go back a long, long way. It
would have been interesting to hear from London and Jerusalem
how a citizenry lives in the shadow of repeated terrorist threats
But putting the terrorism in context was not the only gap I
saw in coverage. The attack on the World Trade Center may have
been the most destructive terrorist incident known though
my caution about superlatives makes me worry about that claim
but it was certainly not the most destructive event to
hit a major city.
On September 19, 1985, for example, an earthquake magnitude
8.1 struck Mexico City and a second one, magnitude 7.5, occurred
36 hours later. International agencies estimate the death toll
at more than 10,000 and as many as 100,000 housing units and countless
public buildings were destroyed. On January 17, 1995, an earthquake
magnitude 7.2 struck the Kobe area of Japan. The death toll was
5,500 and something like 35,000 persons were injured. About 180,000
buildings were damaged or destroyed.
It would have been interesting to learn how those two western
cities coped with and recovered from those destructive events.
It might also have helped to put New York in context by looking
at what happened in Tangshan, China, on July 28, 1976, when an
earthquake, magnitude 7.8, killed a quarter of a million people
and left only a small handful of buildings in the entire city
standing. It would have been helpfull and some did do this
to compare it to the far more destructive incident
in terms of impact on a single community that occurred
in Halifax on December 6, 1917 when a munitions' shop explosion
killed or injured one-fifth of the city's population in a few
seconds and started thousands of fires in the city's North End.
Another concern I had was the continual use by reporters of
words like "chaos" and "pandemonium" and "panic". Sometimes these
words came from the reporters themselves, sometimes interviewees
I have been studying destructive incidents for more than 30
years. That research has shown that there are many myths about
human behaviour before, during and after destructive incidents.
Most of these myths exist because of inaccurate media reports.
Journalists believe that victims will be dazed and confused
and in shock and that there is a real possibility of panic. In
fact, in most emergencies, survivors do most, if not all, of the
initial search and rescue. Panic is so rare it is almost impossible
to study. And flight behaviour is not panic. Running for safety
when a building is collapsing above your head is common sense
Some journalists did try to dispel these myths. I had calls
from Peter Calamai of the Toronto Star and Dave Stephens
of CBC Radio's Ontario Today. However, their attempts were a drop
in the bucket of misleading coverage.
The fact is as far as I could tell those at the
World Trade Center behaved for the most part just as other victims
have elsewhere. Many calmly walked down from near the top of the
towers, even when security personnel were telling them over public
address systems that they were not in danger.
As for the evacuation of the towers, we did hear anecdotal evidence
about what happened. But most of what we heard came from emergency
personnel and officials such as the mayor of New York and governor
of the state. That reflects the media's "command post" view of
coverage. A little thought would have made journalists realize
that an accurate picture of what happened in those buildings could
not come from an official. It might have come from Dennis Wenger*
at Texas A & M who studied how people in the World Trade Center
left the building after a bomb exploded in 1993.
There are two other things about the coverage that surprised
me. They, too, were missing when I would have expected them to
First, I was surprised and impressed at the sober and responsible
way the media avoided speculating about the numbers of dead and
injured. Journalism texts insist that this is crucial. On page
297 of his reporting text, William Metz, for example, says: One
of the first things a reporter does after arriving on the scene
is to compile a casualty list that includes the names, ages, addresses
(or hometowns) and occupations.
In fact, of course, precise figures may never be known. Years
after the 1917 Halifax explosion, Janet Kitz, who wrote Shattered
City 72, reflected on this question: "I am frequently asked
how many people died in the explosion, but I am reluctant to give
a definite answer. I have come across so many different figures;
for example, 1,635 or 1,963. No list I have seen has included
all the people I know to have died. I believe the figure was higher
Usually, journalists use guesses at such figures, often basing
coverage and play on the size of the death toll. That did not
happen this time.
Another angle largely missing from the coverage was what is
called "scapegoating." Clearly those who hijacked the planes,
had managed, in some cases to acquire their skills at piloting
and slip by airport security. Something went terribly wrong at
the U.S. borders and airports. It would also appear that there
was an intelligence failure of massive proportions by the agency
responsible for internal security, the FBI. Yet the media skirted
around these shortcomings. I believe that the process of blaming
does little good and obscures the more important issue of what
can be learned. I am surprised and pleased that the U.S. media
seem to share this view.
There is, however, one other story that I keep waiting to see,
hear or read: who does President George Bush consider a terrorist?
There are a lot of different terrorist groups in the world today
and most are connected one way or another with a religion or a
cult. There are the Sikhs who have been blamed, among other things,
for the bomb on an Air India flight from Canada that exploded
on June 22, 1985, when the aircraft was south of Ireland, killing
329 passengers. There is the AUM Shinrikyo, a Japanese religious
cult blamed for the March 20, 1995, incident that killed 12 and
left 5,000 incapacitated when six devices disguised as a soft
drink can, a briefcase, a discarded newspaper and plastic bags
released sarin gas in five different Tokyo subway cars. There
are the Roman Catholic terrorists of the Irish Republican Army
who, among other things, have been blamed for the Bishopsgate
bombings and other bombings in London and that city's financial
I was intrigued while listening to the President's speech to
Congress how vague he was about which terrorist groups he intends
to attack. One would have thought that with British Prime Minister
Tony Blair present he would have mentioned the IRA. I didn't come
across any stories that commented on that omission. Perhaps those
who say the current war against terrorism is a war against Islam
are, to some extent, right.
This article contains my impressions. It is not based on a careful
analysis of all coverage. It is possible the media did deal with
the points I have mentioned. If so, I can only say I was wrong
and I am pleased to know that.