Television turning into the nation's public square in the wake of tragedy is a familiar thing, even when the events are so staggeringly unfamiliar. But being able to witness tragedies as they occur, from an airplane crashing into a World Trade Center tower to the towers collapsing, makes the public square a dramatic point in history.
In Tuesday's apparently coordinated terrorist attack on the United States, millions of Americans saw the second thrust of that attack live on their morning news programs, and the nation knew a profound event was unfolding.
By the end of what CBS anchor Dan Rather would label a second "day of infamy," newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, rushed out multiple midday extra editions, many bearing the simple headline, "Terror."
The Internet slowed to a crawl as people worldwide scrambled for information. The popular search engine Google pointed searchers away from the overwhelmed medium and back to television.
There, as on radio, networks would provide all day and night coverage, while at least two cable shopping channels and Chicago's WPWR-Ch. 50 ceased regular programming out of respect for events. Cable sports channels and even MTV and VH1 canceled regular programming to run coverage from their corporate-sibling news organizations in its place.
"There comes a point when to really show any other programming trivializes what has happened," said WGN-Ch. 9 news director Carol Fowler, whose station aired feeds from sister channel WPIX in New York and CNN.
Several local stations used their relationships with other stations to air news coverage. Channel 50 showed CBS; WCIU-Ch. 26 aired Channel 9's CNN coverage; WCPX-Ch. 38 aired NBC/WMAQ-Ch. 5 news programming.
Nationally, all the networks, in a rare moment of cooperation, shared their live feed without credit or logos attached.
The succession of body blows to the American sense of security started with an event as stunning as Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald before cameras after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Because the first hijacked plane had crashed into one World Trade Center tower before 9 a.m. Eastern time, television already was offering live video of the smoking Manhattan landmark when the second attack occurred.
Viewers saw a jet airplane buzzing incongruously into the picture, ducking behind the tower already hit, then banking into the other tower, causing a fiery explosion.
At once shocking and surreal, the live terrorist attack was all the more terrible for looking like a video simulation when the images were slowed for viewer comprehension. As Rather had to remind people during one of dozens of replays during the day, "This is an actual photograph, not just a graphic made up by us."
And as the day progressed, the horror mounted. It was the kind of day in which viewers left the set for the moment, still trying to grasp what the skyscraper attacks meant, and came back to find the Pentagon on fire.
Leave again and a possibility the news anchors had barely seemed to mention was occurring: The trade center towers were crumbling, turning what viewers might have optimistically considered isolated damage into real-life disaster on a Hollywood-movie scale.
A spokesman for CNN said producers decide what will be shown on a case-by-case basis. But he did say CNN tends to be conservative in showing graphic images of violence. The all-news network also shared video feeds with other networks. This included exclusive images Tuesday night via direct satellite transmission from Afghanistan as explosions occurred there.
WBBM-Ch. 2, like most local news operations, is on "emergency mode," publicist Kerri Weitzberg Herman said. Staff members are working 12-hour shifts "until further notice, so that we're always covered," she said.
Gathering around TVs
Out in the nation, where no one knew what attacks may come and every television image of a flying airplane caused a further shudder, people congregated around television sets to try to comprehend, something all the television reporters and experts were openly struggling to do.
ABC at one point offered an image of New Yorkers in Times Square, safely away from the point of attack, standing in silence, looking up at the giant screens broadcasting network coverage.
As the network's Diane Sawyer pointed out, there was no audio, but the pictures were enough.
In Chicago, brother and sister Nicholas and Natalie Nimerala watched television in front of the WGN radio studios on Michigan Avenue.
"You want to go to the TV. It's the only way we know," said Natalie Nimerala, 24.
Viewers saw reporters in New York who had struggled out of the dust to make it back to their studios. Several went on air still covered in the soot and rubble, a result of trying to get too close to the teetering buildings.
NBC financial correspondent Ron Insana described his experience in the entertainment terms many witnesses came back to during the day: "Honestly, it was like a scene out of `Independence Day,"' he said.
Chicago broadcaster Carol Marin, apparently in New York on assignment, made it out of the horror to sit beside Rather in the CBS studio.
Choking back tears, she said a firefighter who threw her against a wall and covered her body with his own probably had saved her life.
In an era of frequent and justified complaints about television news providing saturation coverage of not very much, there also was no way you could avoid Tuesday's coverage. Nor, in this shared public moment, would you dare.