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How 9/11 Changed Television

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we remember that most people experienced the 9/11 attacks through television, especially TV news. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says, in the 20 years since, it's also shaped television.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Among the enduring images from 9/11 is the TV coverage itself - four days of continuous commercial-free reports on broadcast and cable channels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AARON BROWN: At about 8:45 Eastern Time, a plane crashed into the foremost of those towers, the World Trade Center.

DEGGANS: Then TV gave us action-oriented heroes who could channel the anger and frustration of a traumatized nation, like Kiefer Sutherland's hard-charging government agent Jack Bauer on the Fox series "24." But when asked about the changes he thinks 9/11 brought to TV, CNBC anchor Shepard Smith, who covered the attacks when he worked at Fox News, also notes something small - the ticker, a stream of news headlines moving across the screen, which cable news channels began using during 9/11 coverage.

SHEPARD SMITH: Well, we had an information overload, the likes of which we'd never really experienced. Getting more info to the screen is the main thing. I feel like 9/11 helped us learn to process it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE GIBSON: So this looks like it is some sort of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center that is underway.

DEGGANS: In many ways, coverage of the disaster was TV news's finest hour, uniting the nation. Aaron Brown, who anchored CNN's reporting that day from a rooftop, said 9/11 highlighted how cable news channels thrive by focusing on the one story viewers care most about.

BROWN: The lesson of 9/11 in many, many, many way is that you need one great story. And you'd feel like a schmuck if you then said, let me give you five minutes on the weather.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: Welcome to "The Late Show." This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington were attacked.

DEGGANS: David Letterman was the first late-night host to bring his show back, leading a new episode just six days after the attacks. A consummate broadcaster, Letterman channeled the emotions of the moment and his audience so powerfully, he established a new TV tradition that endures.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: We've lost 5,000 fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it. You can see it. It's terribly sad, terribly, terribly sad.

DEGGANS: The way today's late-night hosts returned so soon after pandemic lockdowns shut them out of their studios last year recalled the example Letterman set 20 years ago. When it comes to scripted TV shows, there are two programs that highlight 9/11's influence over the years - Showtime's "Homeland" and Fox's "24." Executive producer Howard Gordon worked on both of them, beginning with "24," which debuted on Fox just a few months after 9/11. Gordon says by the show's second season, Bauer's willingness to do anything to stop the show's villains spoke to an America angry at terrorists and incompetent or corrupt government officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "24")

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) You are going to tell me now how to find the rest of the nerve gas.

PETER WELLER: (As Christopher Henderson) Oh, go ahead and do it, Jack. Get it done. Shoot me.

DEGGANS: Later, Gordon would help develop "Homeland," a show that commented more directly on terrorism and war. "Homeland" initially focused on an American former prisoner of war and his connection to a female CIA agent who suspects he's been brainwashed by al-Qaida. Both shows, while popular with viewers, faced criticism that their American-centric focus created storylines and depictions that demonize Muslims and make torture look effective, leading some to accuse Gordon of being an Islamophobe, which he denies.

HOWARD GORDON: Did we recognize the full extent of some of the implications? No, and that's kind of - I think that's kind of what I have to say at this moment. I am - people ask me how am I. And my stock answer is I'm humbled, and I'm doing a lot more listening.

DEGGANS: One legendary TV personality says speaking out against war in Iraq helped end his TV career.

PHIL DONAHUE: Everybody else was beating the war drums, and I wanted to get on the air and say - why are you doing this?

DEGGANS: Phil Donahue, long a household name thanks to his classic daytime talk show, began hosting a talk show for MSNBC in 2002, showcasing his skepticism of the Iraq War. Back then, MSNBC had different ownership and executives. It also hadn't developed its current lineup of liberal pundits. By 2003, MSNBC canceled Donahue's show. He remains convinced his insistence on challenging the drive to war did him in.

DONAHUE: The jingoism has really created a roadblock to truth-telling. The reporting of bad news is more important than the good news. But for a long time, it was very hard to make that point in a country that, as my grandmother would have said, is full of itself.

DEGGANS: Perhaps one of the most crucial lessons for TV and media from 9/11 is the importance of resisting the jingoism and groupthink inspired by such disasters.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEADLY AVENGER'S "SKIT 2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.