Monday, September 12, 2011

The New York Times and Me*

by guest blogger Andrew Roman

(Originally published 8/30/10)
I am a news junkie.

I am, too, a collector of newspapers and original news broadcasts (both radio and television).

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the news events of the decade, and, arguably, of my lifetime. Much like the Kennedy assassination during my father’s generation, and the attack on Pearl Harbor during my grandfather’s generation, the hijacking of four airplanes, the subsequent use of those airplanes as missiles against targets in the United States, and the ultimate collapse of the two tallest buildings in New York into the streets of Manhattan on live television – all before 10:30AM – will forever be that “moment in time” branded in the minds of anyone and everyone who was around to experience it.

It was a colossal act of evil.

It was an unmistakable act of war.

The horror and terror of that day almost nine years ago - culminating in the deaths of almost three thousand innocent human beings - cannot be overstated.

And while I was fortunate enough not to experience any personal loss on that terrible Tuesday morning, as an American, I was deeply and profoundly affected by the attack on my country and the staggering loss of life.

In the months and years following 9/11, many outstanding documentaries on the events of that day were produced – from technical presentations explaining exactly how and why the towers collapsed to personal stories of the people who escaped the towers before they fell.

I own many of these exceptional programs.

However, as a bona fide news junkie, the one documentary I was hoping to see created never came to fruition. The one presentation I had hoped would come out depicting the events of September 11, 2001 “as they unfolded” on live television was never made. I found it puzzling - and disappointing - that coverage of the most photographed and videotaped event in American television news history simply had not been preserved in any real way for the public at large to review and study. Not at the time anyway.

Back in early 2003, I decided I would endeavor to actualize, on my own, the kind of “documentary” I was wanting to see - a timeline of the events of September 11, 2001, employing mostly “as it happened” television newscasts. My task was to gather as many of the original telecasts from as many networks as possible – including the initial “breaking news” bulletins which began airing at 8:48 AM – and compile them into a montage that presented exactly how each outlet reported the unfolding story. It would, quite literally, be a succession of segments, edited together in such a way that would enable one to get a representative sampling of how the television networks covered each development that morning (e.g., the second plane crashing into the South Tower, the first reports of an “explosion” at the Pentagon, the collapse of the South Tower, etc).

This was not an agenda driven project.

Rather, it was to be a modest, yet poignant, historical record of how the media covered the biggest news story of a generation. As one who does this sort of thing for a living, I was certainly up to the task.

But there were obvious problems.

To begin with, this project was ultimately intended to be for private use only, although I did approach several colleges about the possibility of using the final presentation for educational purposes. (I would have donated the video, of course). No one at the time, however, was interested - and because not a single television or radio network agreed to help me with such an undertaking, I had to do all the digging on my own, contacting other collectors and news junkies for possible footage.

To say that trying to track down original 9/11 news footage was not easy would be the understatement of a lifetime.

Indeed, it is true that some people did, in fact, have the presence of mind to turn their VCRs on after the fact, but as one can imagine, finding complete network news coverage of the events of that morning, including the first “breaking news” bulletins, was a major challenge. After all, how many people actually had their VCRs rolling prior to those initial bulletins?

Who knew what was about to happen?

However, by the end of that year, I had painstakingly managed to hunt down the first two hours of broadcasts of that morning’s events from just about every national news outlet, as well as from all of New York City’s local channels.

I spent a couple of months putting it all together.

The entire presentation – beginning with a roundup of that morning’s headlines before the first plane hit (Michael Jordan’s return to basketball was a big story that day), and concluding with a few very powerful words from President Bush before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 – runs about an hour and a half.

As I alluded to earlier, I never sold my efforts for profit, never officially “released” it anywhere, and only ever shared it with friends and associates who were interested. I called the video “September 11, 2001 – As It Happened – A Composite.”

Approximately 95% of the program is comprised of original television newscasts from that day, exactly as they aired. The remaining 5% feature original news radio broadcasts from that morning as well as some additional footage from that day not broadcast on live television. (I included these extra "non-broadcast" video elements for the sake of completeness).

I finished the project about two-and-a-half years after the attacks, in April, 2004.

Six and half years after that - just yesterday, in fact - my "As It Happened" video made the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

Exciting as it was the find out that my little video has been mentioned in the New York Times Magazine, I quickly got a hold of my senses and remembered that this was the New York Times. It quickly became obvious that the video was about to be picked apart and misinterpreted by a pensmith from the left.

According the article's author, Virginia Heffernan, the way the program was assembled - interesting as it may have been to watch - led her to the conclusion that it was ultimately nothing more than a "piece of rhetoric." To Heffernan, my "heavily edited" program - a mashup, as they say - was created in such a way as to manipulate the narrative of the events of that day. To her, it was the fruit of an obvious agenda, engineered to further a position, whatever it was. Heffernan even went on to expose an audio-video "mismatch" she came across in the program, which, she said, "suggests the extent of the editing."

Silly me, I had no idea this is what I was doing.

She is, after all, a professional columnist, and I'm only a regular guy from the outer boroughs who doesn't get paid to write. She would know.

So why exactly did Ms. Heffernan take time to comment on my video, a portion of which was posted on YouTube three years ago?

As it turns out, an excerpt of my video assemblage is being included in a presentation on “rhetoric.”

Writes Heffernan:
The video is now included in “Rhetoric of 9/11,” a special exhibition of the online speech archive American Rhetoric, an immersive site produced by Michael Eidenmuller, a rhetoric connoisseur and professor at the University of Texas at Tyler. The montage is billed as an excerpt from a hard-to-find DVD called “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — A Composite”; it shows heavily edited clips mainly from telecasts that appeared in New York City from 9:02 to 9:03 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001.

Witnesses on location and in studios can be heard interpreting images of an explosion in Manhattan. The fact that the video represents an online excerpt of a film montage of digitally edited clips of television broadcasts of audio and video feeds means it’s almost pure art, editing and framing — a piece of rhetoric itself.
In her piece, Heffernan is not only commenting on the "rhetoric" of the newscasters and eyewitnesses of September 11, 2001 as depicted in the program, but is labeling the video itself - the way it was constructed and the clips chosen to tell the story – as “rhetoric."

Her wording here is most interesting.

It is the unfortunate, but predictable, product of both her ignorance and intellectual dishonesty.

She uses the phrase "heavily edited" to suggest egregious manipulation on my part. Why else would she use that specific term if not to imply agenda-motivated heavy-handedness? Words, after all, have meaning and, quite often, power. Why not call it a "compilation," a "sequence" or a "composite," which would be far more accurate?

Indeed, in the literal sense of the word, the entire presentation is edited, but only in that the “editing” was a necessary action in order to string together a succession of clips to tell the story.

But even that description is misleading.

The “story” did not need to be crafted or shaped for this video. The attacks of September 11, 2001 were an exceptionally straight-forward act of terrorism perpetrated by those who wished to inflict maximum damage on American civilians. My video was, quite literally, a progression of snapshots in time.

Nothing more.

The particular section of the program referenced by Heffernan begins with ABC's national feed at 9:02 AM, sixteen minutes after the first plane slammed into the North Tower. Don Dahler, a correspondent speaking to Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer, is describing what he is seeing as the North Tower burns. Suddenly, as the clock turns to 9:03 AM, the second plane crashes into the other tower on live television. Dahler gasps, "Oh My God!" Both Gibson and Sawyer, maintaining composure - to their great credit - comment on what they've just seen, including Gibson’s assertion that what we’ve all just witnessed is most likely a “concerted effort” to attack the Twin Towers.

It is powerful television, presented just as it was broadcast nine years ago.

The video stays with ABC's coverage for about 40 seconds before going directly to the next "clip," which is CBS's network coverage of the same event.

According to Heffernan, this transition counts as one of my "heavy edits" - a simple cut from ABC's coverage to CBS's coverage.

In other words, all I did was simply "switch" to another network's broadcast, turning back the clock one minute to 9:02 AM, just before the second plane hit, to show the viewer how CBS covered the same event.

That's it.

This pattern of simple cuts for this particular portion of the program continues with WNYW (Fox News New York), WNBC (NBC New York), NY1 (New York One), WPIX (Channel 11, New York), WCBS (CBS New York), and Fox News Channel.

None of these individual clips were edited in any way. They were included "as they happened," each segment being anywhere from thirty to forty seconds long.

No one - repeat no one - with any idea of what they are talking about would ever call that "heavy editing."

Heffernan is entirely misleading her readers. Her stunning cluelessness is exceeded only by her liberalism, and, sadly, seems to be the direct result of it.

Note that in her piece she makes sure to emphasize (i.e., italicize) the words "excerpt," "montage," "clips," "broadcasts" and "feeds" in an attempt to illustrate my master manipulation of the material. But she sounds remarkably naive. It's like accusing someone of distributing drugs to minors, only to found out that person is actually a pediatrician.

Indeed, there are "segments" in the program.

Indeed, the program is, by definition, a "montage."

Indeed, it is a succession of "clips."

So, therefore what?

In Heffernan's world, the video I created cannot possibly be taken as anything other than "pure art, editing and framing" because of these realities.

Ironically, what she has projected onto the video is not unlike what she has done with her careful and deliberate choice of words in the article. Of course, it's unclear in reading Heffernan's piece exactly what I would have had to include in that section of the program to transform it from mere "rhetoric" and "art" to something less agenda-driven.

She goes on:
The witnesses’ off-the-cuff inferences about the day’s second plane crash are fascinating. So much new information — logistical, emotional, political — dawns on these off-guard brains at once. But they rise to meet the challenge. Watching “September 11, 2001 — As It Happened — The South Tower Attack,” which was uploaded in 2007, you can almost feel minds absorbing injury, cognitive immune systems springing into action and one of modern civilization’s master narratives being created.
“Cognitive immune systems springing into action?”

Oh, help me Rhonda.

Only college educated leftists use such hyper-syllabic vapidity when trying to discuss evil (save for all the evil perpetrated by the United States) - as if the poor, fragile American mind can only make sense of the true nature of 9/11 by reflexively - instinctively - blaming other "bad guys." Thus, according to Heffernan and her ilk, the way we see and comprehend what happened on that day nine years ago is the result of our collective "cognitive immune systems" protecting us, sorting things out for us, making things understandable, keeping us from having to dig any deeper than we have to.

This is honestly how libs think.

Indeed, many on the left view the attacks as a profoundly complicated, socio-economic, political and emotional event - not an act of pure evil. That would be far too simplistic. Without considering the nuances and penumbras of the larger picture, we are, thus, left with having to make due with popular "rhetoric." Ultimately, the master narrative is created - and reinforced - by folks like me.
The video on American Rhetoric also includes frightening close-range images of the second crash that weren’t broadcast at the time, notably a shot looking north at the south tower right above tree level. A stray piece of video plays over unconnected audio from NPR. The video-audio mismatch suggests the extent of the editing. This is a brief designed to remind us of what struck observers at the time as self-evident: that there is someone to blame and punish for the attacks of Sept. 11. After nine years of trying to figure out how to assign that blame, the eyewitness idea of “on purpose” now seems more complicated than ever.

Just wow.

Who, on God's green earth, save for overly-intellectualizing leftists and Islamic fundamentalist sympathizers, believes that placing blame for the 9/11 attacks is "more complicated than ever"? In the conscious world, what does that even mean? What could possibly be complicated about it? What other subtleties and dimensions are the rest of us missing that somehow take the edge off the evil perpetrated that day?

How can the left ever be taken seriously when "thinkers" like Heffernan are the ones who articulate the positions of their side?

That someone was to blame for these murderous acts was not a conclusion haphazardly drawn in the emotion of the moment nine years ago.

Someone did hijack those planes.

Someone did murder those innocents.

Someone did bring down the Twin Towers.

Facts are pesky things.

Heffernan also believes she has the video's creator - me - in a "gotcha," hand-in-the-cookie-jar moment because of what she calls a "stray video" playing over "unconnected" audio. The "mismatch," as Heffernan describes it, can only lead one to speculate just how extensive the manipulation of the rest of the video must be.

Even Heffernan cannot be this petty ... or dumb.

Obviously, broadcasts on NPR (National Public Radio) and WCBS-AM (News Radio 880 in New York) do not come with accompanying pictures.

These are radio broadcasts.

I included these audio-only feeds in the presentation for the sake of thoroughness. I thought it would be interesting to hear, albeit briefly, how selected radio stations covered some of the events of that morning. But rather than present a blank screen during those audio passages, I simply placed additional video footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower not broadcast live on television that morning, along with some street scenes of stunned New Yorkers staring at the burning towers. I even included one tremendously frightening shot – a “raw” video - of the second plane crashing into the South Tower from Battery Park, south of where the towers stood, a clip mentioned by Heffernan in her piece.

That's it.

Such is the "heavy editing” that defines my 9/11 “rhetoric” video.

Anyone who watches the presentation can see that these "mismatched" vido and audio tracks are not original television newscasts, nor are they meant to draw that inference from the viewer. They were not presented that way, and there is nothing about them that suggests a "narrative" being constructed. The fact is, some of the angles of the second plane were so dramatic - so compelling - that I decided to include them in the program after the sequence of original newscasts.

Heffernan is trying desperately hard to sound smart.

And even if, for the sake of argument, one did subscribe to the idea that the video I created – manipulated, Heffernan might say - was built with the intent of proffering a specific narrative, what exactly would that narrative be? What agenda am I supposedly fostering here?

That the United States was attacked by terrorists?

That thousands of innocents were murdered in New York, Northern Virgina and Pennsylvania?

That the attacks were a bad thing?

Honestly, what on earth is this woman talking about?

YouTube-style montages and mash-ups have been an excellent tool for seeing and showing how rhetoric takes shape. Of course, these videos can themselves be polemical, and people use them to advance all kinds of tendentious theories. But even as the 9/11 conspiracy blogs seem to have moved on, the narrative of 9/11 — and especially the question of who is ultimately blameworthy and what retribution and prevention would or should look like — is still contested, as the recent debates over a proposed Islamic center near the site of the attacks in Manhattan make clear.

Is it possible that after nine years we still can’t do much better than describe that 2001 tragedy as having “proportions that we cannot begin to imagine”?
First of all, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were not - repeat not - a "tragedy." They were not an act of nature or an unfortunate accident. They were a deliberate act of murder and destruction. The very fact that Heffernan uses the word "tragedy" to classify an act of war says all you need to know about where she is coming from.

Second, one could have bet the deed of their home on the fact that Heffernan would somehow figure out a way to insert the current debate on the Ground Zero mosque and Islamic cultural center into her article.

And no, the old Burlington Coat Factory, where the proposed mosque would be built, isn't near Ground Zero - it is Ground Zero. When the landing gear of the second plane smashed through the roof of that building, it earned the right to be classified as such.

The so-called narrative of 9/11, as she puts it, is contested only by Muslims who, at the very least, blame the United States in part for bringing on the attacks themselves, and moral equivalency derelicts who populate the cultural and political left (e.g., New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who says discussion of the topic is closed). Thus, in Heffernan’s world, my video is to be readily lumped in with conspiracy-theory mashups and YouTube-style montages, dismissed as nothing more than the spawn of a given agenda, a piece of art, and one man's interpretation of the events.

She is certainly entitled to her opinion – ill-informed as she is - but there is a larger point to be made here.

How dare she diminish the horror of that Tuesday morning nine years ago by repudiating the outrage and indignation we all felt - and still feel - as mere “rhetoric.”

This country was ruthlessly and brutally attacked on that day.

Innocent human beings were murdered by human vermin whose supporters and sympathizers openly celebrated on that day.

People jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the World Trade Center to avoid dying by fire on that day.

The two largest buildings in New York crumbled into the streets on that day.

Nearly two hundred people were slain at the Pentagon on that day.

A hijacked airplane doubling as a missile on its way to Washington crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on that day.

Where exactly is the "rhetoric"?

Incidentally, other portions of my six-year old video are also up on YouTube, including a montage of the pre-attack headlines of that morning and the collapse of both towers.

Perhaps Heffernan can pick apart those "mashups" as well, and at the same time, illuminate the world on my devious and obvious use of "rhetoric."

Or maybe she could actually try and watch the entire program before knee-jerking.

I didn't think it was possible, given the simple nature of the program I created, but Heffernan brilliantly managed to take what I did out of context.

That takes real talent.

*This was originally posted Aug. 30, 2010. In light of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and many news outlets cracking open the vaults a bit to show us some of the images of that day, I thought it would be appropriate to take another look at it. But, since it focuses on media treatment of 9/11 and how it was subsequently reported, I felt the day after the anniversary would prove more fitting. -Proof


  1. That writer, by indicting your film, indicts all of news itself. For, what news article in print or radio or televised newscast is not edited?

    Congratulations on being attacked by the toilet paper of record. That means you are going something right.

    As Dennis Prager says (Quote from memory), "If I find myself in agreement with the New York Times editorial page, I reconsider my line of thinking."

  2. Well, isn't she the Queen of Nitpickery?

    Terrific post, and reaffirms why I no longer read the NY Times, except for the food section.

  3. SF: Good point on editing!

    Mrs. C: The food section?? I only read it for Page Six. No, wait! That's the Post. Never mind!

  4. Not familiar with Sean personally, but I'll take your word for it!