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Shallow digging in rubble of 9/11

Times Staff Writer

Her Court TV documentary based on the Sept. 11 commission report doesn’t air till next month, but Hollywood-based director Linda Ellman is already anxious that no one will bother watching.

“I think people have stuck their heads in the sand,” she railed self-servingly to reporters Friday, “rather than pay attention to the most important thing in their lives, which is national security.”

Activist Mary Fetchet, whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attacks and who helped promote Ellman’s “On Native Soil: The Documentary of the 9/11 Commission Report,” agreed: “I do think there’s been a lack of sense of urgency, and not just on the part of government.”

That’s hogwash. The initial shock of the attacks has ebbed, but Americans still care deeply about Sept. 11 and its aftermath. They just may not care for the way TV continues to frame the issues, just as they’ve increasingly tired of the Punch-and-Judy style of political debate on cable news.

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An ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, for example, found that one-third of Americans feel the country is less safe today than before Sept. 11; only 24% said U.S. citizens are much safer. Asked how the campaign against terrorism is going, 41% said “not too well” or “not well at all.” Those are hardly views of people who’ve buried their heads in the sand.

On that awful day five years ago, TV was our salvation, our unifying town forum, even when it gave us pictures and audio too dreadful to comprehend. And in the months after the attacks, when the memory was still raw, TV seemed to do a better job documenting the event, perhaps because the interpretive demands were lower. Six months after the attacks, for example, CBS aired the documentary “9/11,” which featured surreally horrific video from filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center and of firefighters scrambling in the lobby as falling bodies crashed outside. Ric Burns’ “The Center of the World” was a magisterial account of the life and death of the World Trade Center that ran on PBS’ “The American Experience” in 2003.

But now, in struggling to make sense of the attacks, television is slipping back to its all-too-frequent caricature, the eyeball with no brain attached. In the space of five short years, the medium that rose to one of its finest hours bringing home the nightmare of the attacks to viewers everywhere is leaving some of the most important questions unasked.

Good luck if you and yours are determined to avoid any visual reminders of the 5th anniversary of the tragedy. The commemorative frenzy may mark the media’s biggest collective remembrance of any historical event since the American bicentennial 30 years ago.

Sept. 11 docudrama already has a dime-a-dozen taint. ABC’s long-gestating miniseries “The Path to 9/11" arrives Sept. 10 (NBC announced a similar project two years ago but never made the film). That project will arrive more than a month after Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” hits the cineplex; “United 93,” about the hijacked jet whose passengers rebelled on Sept. 11, was a modest hit this spring.

The nonfiction field is crowded too -- although not with projects likely to alter viewers’ perception of events. In addition to Court TV’S documentary, there’s CNN’s two-hour documentary “In the Footsteps of Osama Bin Laden,” hosted by Christiane Amanpour; and National Geographic Channel’s “The Final Report: Osama’s Escape,” a sequel of sorts to the network’s “Inside 9/11.” The History Channel has “The Miracle of Stairway B,” a nonfiction account of a dozen people who survived the collapse of the North Tower. And expect a forthcoming flurry of announcements for news specials in various stages of preparation at ABC, CBS, MSNBC, Fox News Channel and elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that none of the TV projects seems to spend much time examining why tens of millions of Americans still feel so frightened.

Instead, struggling to find new angles on Sept. 11, TV producers are too often dressing up the same old material in new clothing. History Channel’s “Miracle of Stairway B” repeats a tale already told on “The Miracle of Ladder Company 6,” a segment on NBC’s “Dateline.”

CNN’s Amanpour is as tough and experienced a foreign correspondent as exists in TV news today, but even she was evidently hard-pressed to discover many new things viewers didn’t know about Bin Laden outside of interviews with some long-ago teachers and schoolmates. “This is not an attempt to understand the man; it’s an attempt to provide more information,” she told reporters at the Television Critics Assn. press tour Friday in Pasadena. She should be applauded for her candor, but such an admission doesn’t exactly urge viewers to drop everything and tune in.

But then, maybe worrying about how many tune in is the bigger issue. America’s broadcast and cable networks are so freaked about ratings and profit margins these days that sustained scrutiny of a sprawling life-or-death topic like Sept. 11 may be beyond their ken.

Executives and producers -- including those in news divisions -- think too much about what viewers want rather than what they should know. Asked about the dramatic music used to spice up “On Native Soil,” Ellman replied that her film is based on a commission report that many bought but never read. “We had to do something to make it compelling,” she said.

What keeps Sept. 11 compelling for Americans isn’t a soundtrack, of course, but the ongoing battle over what the attacks meant and the lingering fear that we may awaken one morning soon to an even greater atrocity. True insight and real news can still break through: The July 10-17 New Yorker relates the frustrating and depressing story of how squabbles with the CIA probably thwarted FBI agent Ali Soufan’s globetrotting efforts to stop Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 plot.

Former ABC newsman Ted Koppel voiced his own post-Sept. 11 complaint last week, but it had nothing to do with Americans sticking their heads in the sand. “There was the impression -- perhaps it was only a hoping expressed as an impression -- that as a consequence of 9/11 that the network news divisions would now focus once again as seriously as they once did on foreign news,” Koppel said during the press tour. “That, I’m afraid, has not been the case.”

Indeed it hasn’t, and that’s partly why Koppel has migrated to do documentaries for Discovery Channel. His first, “Koppel on Discovery,” premieres Sept. 10. Maybe the former “Nightline” mainstay now has the clout and freedom to bring new vigor and depth to post-Sept. 11 reporting. But the outlook for TV journalism overall is a lot cloudier.

The medium that five years ago dominated the 21st century’s first international turning point may wake up to discover that it’s too late to do it again.

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Scott Collins’ television blog of the same name is at latimes.com/channelisland. Contact him at channelisland@latimes.com.


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