The media’s reconstruction of momentous events can produce a fog of banalities — witness the endless pondering this week about whether the killing of Osama bin Laden would bring “closure” for the victims’ families. The next hack who rolls out that clichÃ© doesn’t even merit a spot on the Hallmark assembly line.
FOR THE RECORD: 9/11 oral history project: In Saturday’s On the Media column in Calendar about an oral history project featured on National Public Radio, a financial executive killed in the World Trade Center attack was initially identified correctly as Sean Rooney but later misidentified as Sean Mooney.
But the post-9/11 milestone also brought some coverage worthy of the moment. In all the hours of broadcast recaps on the meaning of the terrorist attacks, two minutes stood out as the most searing and terribly sad.
Those moments came not from one of media’s biggest names but from the oral history project StoryCorps. NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired the short vignette, the words of Beverly Eckert, recalling the time she spent on the phone with her husband, Sean Rooney, just before he died in the collapsing South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Eckert’s simple description of what happened — how much she loved her husband and how they comforted each other over the phone as they both realized he would find no escape — landed like an existential sledgehammer. One woman’s story eclipsed 1,000 talking-head ruminations.
The radio confessional resonated all the more powerfully for its debut on Thursday, the day President Obama placed a wreath at ground zero. The final gut punch came courtesy of NPR host Linda Wertheimer, who told listeners after the piece that Eckert did not live to hear news of Bin Laden’s death. She died in a plane crash two years ago.
The story of the double tragedy has been told before. Eckert and Rooney’s relatives maintain a fairly high visibility in the community of 9/11 families. But Eckert’s personal description of her loss had never been broadcast before this week, about 4½ years after she recorded it.
Edited down from a 40-minute recording she made at a booth in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, the story epitomized what StoryCorps has done so brilliantly since its 2003 founding. The spoken-word clearinghouse provides equipment, technical assistance and emotional support for people who want to make a permanent record of their memories. StoryCorps’ producers edit down the extended reminiscences until all that is left is essential — tone poems about the deepest moments in people’s lives.
Most people come in pairs to StoryCorps recording booths in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta, or take advantage of the outfit’s door-to-door service, which can be sponsored by schools, churches and businesses. A grandson probes into his grandfather’s war years. A couple recounts how they met. A StoryCorps facilitator helps prepare the subjects and keep their sessions rolling.
“You are in this kind of sacred place to have this conversation, usually with another person,” said Dave Isay, the public radio documentarian who founded the organization and is still its president. “They are very emotional conversations. It’s like if I had only 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to this person.”
Only a tiny fraction of the stories recorded will end up being produced into the two- to four-minute segments that public radio audiences love. (“I have never seen anything that cuts right through, that people relate to and that sticks with them like this,” said Ellen McDonnell, NPR’s executive director of news programming and a 32-year veteran of the radio network.) The rest become part of the permanent archive at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
The StoryCorps website regularly features testimonials from participants — about the deep connections they made with loved ones during the recording sessions. It’s super-charged family therapy, complete with a take-home CD.
Susan Eckert Bourque said this week that her sister Beverly made the recording because “she was so taken with Sean’s bravery and she wanted to share that, not just with family, but with everyone and to make it permanent.”
On Sept. 11, Sean Mooney was 50 years old, working for a financial services firm in New York. When he called Beverly at her office, the first plane already had hit the North Tower. A few minutes later, when she had arrived at their home in Connecticut, they spoke again.
He was on the 105th floor of the South Tower. The air was thickening. “I asked if it hurt for him to breathe and he paused for a minute and said ‘No,’” recalled Eckert, also 50 on the day the planes struck the twin towers. “He loved me enough to lie.”
The two then stopped talking about escape routes and reminisced about their life together. They stayed on the line for half an hour. “Then I heard a sharp crack,” Eckert said, “followed by the sound of an avalanche. It was the building beginning to collapse.”
All she could do was hold the phone to her heart.
More than seven years later, in early 2009, Eckert was flying to Buffalo to be with her husband’s family on what would have been his 58th birthday. Her Continental Connection plane stalled and crashed, reportedly because of icing problems. Everyone aboard died.
Eckert’s sister was in Washington Thursday when NPR aired the StoryCorps piece for the first time. “We really weren’t sure we could sit through it,” Bourque said. “But we listened. And I’m so glad we did. I thought it was beautifully done.”
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, slated for ground zero in New York, has partnered with StoryCorps. Recordings like Eckert’s are slated to be part of the permanent memorial collection.
The oral historians have won many awards, a dedicated following and formidable backers in the philanthropic community. But they also count on nearly $1.8 million, 30% of their funding, from the taxpayer-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
That would be the same CPB that’s threatened with defunding as Congress continues to hunt for spending reductions. It would be a shame to see that money going away, just as StoryCorps again affirms itself as the preeminent keeper of the stories we tell about ourselves.